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Bill Requires Minimum Fines For Unfixed Code Violations

State legislators want to crack down on substandard housing in New York state with minimum penalties for housing code violations that aren’t fixed within 180 days.

The state Assembly earlier this week passed A.362 by a 114-34 vote, with both Assemblymen Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, and Joe Giglio, R-Gowanda, voting against. The state Senate passed companion legislation, S.2884, earlier in the legislative session by a 42-21 vote with state Sen. George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay, voting against the proposal. The legislation will be sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his approval.

The legislation imposes a minimum $50 fine for failure to comply with an order of remedy, a $100 to $200 fine for a second violation and a $150 to $300 fine for subsequent violations. It also authorizes local governments to enact laws prohibiting individuals from obtaining building permits or purchasing property if they have outstanding orders of remedy or immediately hazardous violations. The state can also devise rules requiring anyone seeking a building or construction permit or to purchase property owned by a land bank or subsidized with public money to disclose any outstanding orders of remedy or immediately hazardous violations on any property the person owns.

Goodell’s opposition stemmed from the state’s 18-month-old eviction moratorium, which has caused many landlords to go without rent on their properties.

“When when you go for a year and a half with no income from many of your tenants and you are unable to get them out of the apartment and get someone else in, it creates horrific cash flow problems,” Goodell said. “So landlords facing these huge cash flow problems don’t have the money to make the repairs they want to make. They don’t have the money to make payments on their mortgage sometimes or to pay the taxes. And many of our smaller landlords are seeing their entire life savings evaporate in front of them. And then to compound matters if they eventually do get out a nonpaying tenant and get a tenant in that’s paying we’re seeing a shortage of construction materials and skyrocketing prices all across New York state.”

State Sen. Rachel May, D-Syracuse and sponsor of the Senate bill, wrote in her legislative justification that the legislation was spurred by an August 5, 2019, Committees on Investigations and Government Operations and Housing, Construction, and Community Development report on code enforcement in New York state. The investigation concluded the lack of prioritization of code enforcement in municipalities across the state is significantly contributing to the culture of poor compliance. The report found that all municipalities investigated failed to impose meaningful penalties to deter code violations and that owners view the fines imposed as the cost of doing business. To address this problem, the report recommended imposing more significant penalties, particularly for individuals that repeatedly violate the Uniform Code.

Goodell, however, disagreed with the legislation’s lack of flexibility.

“You can’t make permanent roof repairs during a snowstorm or a rainstorm,” Goodell said. “You have to have cooperative weather. I’m very concerned here in the legislature, after we’ve imposed an eviction moratorium that has gone for a year and a half, we then turn around and say to the landlords, ‘Hey, if you’re not keeping your place fully repaired and maintained we’re going to require — no option — require a minimum fine. Judge, you don’t have any discretion under this law, you must impose a minimum fine. It doesn’t matter what the excuse was, it doesn’t matter what the explanation was, it doesn’t matter what the weather was, a a minimum fine on our landlords.'”

In Jamestown, it also remains unseen how such a proposal would work given that the city’s Housing Court may not reopen until sometime in 2022.

Mayor Eddie Sundquist told The Post-Journal that even though City Court has reopened after being closed because of COVID-19, City Court Judges John LaMancuso and Fred Larson haven’t been able to see as many cases as they did prior to the pandemic. And, the state Unified Court System has kept Housing Courts closed statewide because judges who typically hear Housing Court cases are now hearing more pressing criminal cases.

“The primary court cases are criminal matters,” he said. “Matters before housing court are a lower priority compared to criminal matters. The court is forced to prioritize.”

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