Syracuse Slumlord Reaps $1M from Taxpayers, While City Fights Him

The disconnect highlights one of the many hurdles facing the city as it tries to crack down on blight and bad landlords while county taxpayers are padding those landlords’ wallets and allowing low-income people to live in shoddy conditions.
by Chris Baker, Syracuse Media Group | October 23, 2019 AT 3:01 AM

(TNS) — One of Syracuse’s most notorious landlords has raked in nearly $1 million in taxpayer money, even while city lawyers have tried in vain to punish him for letting tenants live in squalor.

Endzone Properties, a company that has flouted hundreds of property code citations from the city in recent years, received $998,000 in public rent subsidies from Onondaga County’s Department of Social Services between 2016 and 2019.

At the same time, Endzone let more than 200 code violations go unfixed, including broken windows, missing smoke alarms, infestations and lack of heat.

Endzone is a symptom of a systemic failure that allows bad landlords to reap huge sums of public money intended to help struggling families and tenants.

Among the city’s 10 worst property owners, half have received rent from Onondaga County’s public assistance program since 2016. Officials from the county’s Department of Social Services said state law ultimately sets the terms for doling out public money. There’s nothing they can do unless there is an immediate health and safety hazard.

The disconnect highlights one of the many hurdles facing the city as it tries to crack down on blight and bad landlords. Even as city officers try to combat bad landlords, county taxpayers are padding those landlords’ wallets while allowing low-income people to live in shoddy conditions.

This may be fixable. In a neighboring city, the mayor drew up a one-page agreement to tighten the rules for landlords who collect county money. Officials in Onondaga County, however, don’t think the solution would survive legal scrutiny, since state law dictates how public money is doled out.

Sarah Merrick, commissioner of social services for Onondaga County, said her department can only stop payments to a landlord once a city code inspector determines a property is unfit to live in. The county doesn’t do code inspections.

A property can only be declared unfit if it is structurally unsound or has issues that put the immediate safety of the occupants at risk. Problems like broken windows or missing doors or even an infestation of cockroaches don’t qualify, even if they are ignored for months.

An unfit notice from the city triggers the county to stop payments to the landlord for that property. Once the violation is corrected, money starts flowing again.

But the county can’t stop payments for non-urgent code violations on the same building. Nor can it block money from going to a landlord who is delinquent on other properties. Those rules are set by the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

For example, if an apartment has 20 code violations, including one for lack of heat, it would be deemed unfit, since heat is a safety issue. If the landlord fixes the heat, but not the other 19 violations, it would be considered fit for occupancy and the landlord can once again receive public money. The city would be fighting the landlord to fix those other violations, but the county money couldn’t be used as leverage.

It’s likely landlords like Endzone have had county subsidies frozen at times, but hard to pinpoint for how long and how much. County officials said they could not release payment details on individual properties because it would compromise the privacy of DSS clients.

Endzone Properties is owned by John Kiggins, one of Syracuse’s most notorious landlords. He spent time in jail for mortgage fraud in the 1990s and again for flouting code violations in 2006. In 2016, a young girl died in a fire in one of his apartments, caused by candles the family was using to heat the house.

Endzone owns the two-family house at 722 Pond St. on the North Side. Tawanda O’Neal lived there for three years, until two weeks ago. For several of those years while O’Neal was out of work, her rent was subsidized by public assistance.

During that time, Endzone ignored multiple code violations, including a hole in the roof that led to leaks in O’Neal’s ceiling, an infestation of bedbugs and broken doors and windows.

Endzone owns 48 properties in Syracuse. The city has taken the company to court five times seeking payment of fines or the correction of violations.

Cleghorn Properties has received $221,400 in public assistance from Onondaga County since 2016. City records show that company had 80 code violations open past the comply-by date between 2016 and 2018. Many of those violations, however, were on vacant properties and more than half were there before Cleghorn bought the property.

Gregory Cleghorn, one of that company’s owners, said his company buys properties, rehabilitates them, then rents them out. Many of the buildings he buys come with violations, which are fixed during the renovations.

He said he ensures all his properties are up to code before renting them. Sometimes violations go unfixed on vacant properties while they’re being fixed up, but he prides himself in addressing code concerns in occupied properties as soon as they’re identified.

“We’ve got a really good relationship with the code department,” he said. If there are violations, he added, he wants to know about them so he can get them taken care of.

Some downstate landlords are less responsive.

Emmanuel Blum, a downstate landlord who was the city’s second-biggest code scofflaw, has received $23,203 in county dollars since 2016. Blum’s properties had 126 outstanding code violations at the end of 2018.

A code violation is considered outstanding if it’s not fixed before a deadline given by the city. Those deadlines vary depending on the severity of the violation.

In Syracuse, landlords are required to apply to a rental registry each year. To get approved for the registry, a property must be current on its taxes and have no outstanding code violations. It also must pass an inspection.

The registry is intended as a tool to hold landlords accountable to code inspectors and city lawyers. But there are no real repercussions for renting a property without first applying to the registry.

Unregistered rentals can still receive money from the county DSS, as long as they haven’t been deemed unfit. That means properties that get public subsidies aren’t forced to submit to a regular code inspection.

Both the city and county would like to be able to withhold public assistance to landlords not on the rental registry, but the state has previously determined that’s not legal. In 2008, OTDA told lawmakers in Suffolk County that such withholding violated state law and couldn’t be approved.

In Oswego, Mayor Billy Barlow faced a similar problem, but he said he found a way around it.

Last year Barlow did a ridealong with an Oswego city code inspector. He met a man living in wretched conditions, he said. There was no heat at the house and only one working electrical outlet. The bathroom was a bucket in the back yard.

According to Barlow, the man said he had been placed in the house by the Oswego County Department of Social Services after getting out of jail.

“If you’re a landlord you can go and put your name on a landlord list at DSS,” Barlow said this summer. “But there was no vetting at the time on the county side… That’s where we saw there was a big issue.”

The city and county wrote up a memorandum of understanding to fix the problem. Every time a landlord asked to be put on the list for public assistance, the county would first call the city codes department and ask if that landlord had a valid rental permit and if there were any outstanding code violations.

Oswego County is no longer doing business with landlords whose properties are delinquent or aren’t authorized to rent in Oswego. Barlow said he’s gotten no push back from landlords.

“It didn’t take long,” Barlow said, “But the problem has virtually gone away.”

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