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December 14, 2010

 

Mayor wants deal on rental law

Landlord Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Cortland landlord Marc Pace poses in front of one of his apartment houses on Clayton Avenue. Pace and other landlords in the city are trying to overturn the law that recently created a rental permit program in Cortland. The mayor is trying to reach a compromise to have the landlords drop the suit. A judge placed a temporary restraining order on the program in July in response to the lawsuit.

 

By JEREMY HOUGHTALING
Staff Reporter
jhoughtaling@cortlandstandardnews.net

Mayor Susan Feiszli has suggested settling a lawsuit local landlords brought against the city’s rental permit program by exempting the properties that do not comply with the regulation when it was created and by working with the landlords involved.
“This has gone on for too long,” Feiszli said, adding that she supports having a registry, but would rather see the program revised and not see the process dragged out through the court system. “We need to have laws on the books that are enforceable.”
Gerry Ruggiero, one of the landlords in the lawsuit, said the landlords would agree to drop the lawsuit if existing rental properties are grandfathered in and the law is rewritten.
The council would need to pass a resolution to grandfather in properties. According to records the landlords gave the judge, 12 houses have been converted since 2003, the last time properties were grandfathered under the three-unrelated law. They also indicate there are 13 residents living in houses above the three-unrelated law.
Ruggiero said the landlords are not against having a rental permit program.
“We don’t disagree with having the law, but we’re against this one,” Ruggiero said. “We’re for going against bad landlords.”
He said the council has not listened to the landlords, and that the landlords have been vilified for years as being “slumlords.”
The city’s rental permit program violates the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution by allowing code officers to access buildings without a warrant, according to the landlords.
The lawsuit was filed in July by about a dozen local landlords.
They add that being forced to lease their rental properties to no more than three unrelated college students would be “financially devastating,” causing the landlord group collectively to lose $500,000 in rent for the school year, according to the lawsuit.
State Supreme Court Justice Phillip Rumsey has issued a restraining order on the program, barring the city from enforcing the rental permit law while the suit remains active, and freezing over $45,000 in permit fees already collected.
Director of Code Enforcement Bill Knickerbocker estimated about one-third to one-half of the rental properties have registered with the program. Inspections were scheduled to begin next year.
“I would like to see all the options on the table and see what we would gain or lose before deciding,” Alderman Tom Michales (R-8th Ward) said. “It comes down to principle and doing the right thing.”
The landlords named in the lawsuit are Ruggiero, Marc and Judith Grodinsky, Richard Doerler, Paradigm Properties, Gary and Martha Seales, Marc Pace, Michael Pace, Lexi Properties, Jeff Terwilliger and Dukelow Family Trust.
Alderman Brian Tobin (D-4th Ward), a member of the city Housing Committee which put the law together, said he is against grandfathering in the properties in the suit.
“You’re rewarding a lawsuit,” Tobin said, adding that it is not fair for those following the laws. “I don’t see the rationale in it.”
Tobin said backing down would not solve the problem, and open up the city to more problems in the future. He said if someone does not like a law, they could sue and expect the city to back down.
The Common Council passed the rental permit program in June 2009, requiring landlords to register their rental properties with the city, and allow code enforcement officers to inspect the properties every three years or whenever a complaint is received from a tenant or neighbor.
The program’s aim was to identify where such properties are located and to control the number of renters residing in them. It also gives code enforcement the ability to inspect apartments without owner’s permission, which could help determine how many people live in the dwelling.
In a letter to Feiszli in June, City Attorney Ron Walsh discussed the possibility of the lawsuit, and wrote an amendment to the rental permit law that would grandfather the properties in. He said it was his impression the lawsuit would be dropped if the amendment was adopted.
Walsh would not comment on the matter.
Feiszli said the council was warned several times a lawsuit could take a couple of years to resolve, and land use attorney Donald Cheney suggested changing from a three-unrelated law, which was originally created to regulate population density in the city by only allowing three unrelated people to live in a single family dwelling, to one that is based on square footage with consideration for parking restrictions and green space, which is how Feiszli would like to see it handled.
Tobin said the committee looked into square footage instead of the three-unrelated law, and decided to stick with the law already on the books. He also said some fairly large properties could essentially turn into apartment complexes if measured by square footage.
“We have no problem working with the city,” landlord Marc Pace said. “We as a group know that the three unrelated law is not going to take care of the problem.”
Pace used the example of a five-bedroom house that he would only be able to rent to three students. Those students would likely find two more people to fill in the empty bedrooms without letting the landlord know.
“Now I’m responsible for the kids I’m not renting to,” Pace said. “That’s more dangerous.”

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