New York state Senator James Skoufis was in Newburgh Friday to announce an ongoing statewide investigation into housing conditions and code enforcement outside New York City. Newburgh is one of four municipalities, all in the listening area, at the heart of the investigation.
State Senator Skoufis of the 39th District is chair of the New York State Senate Committee on Investigations and Government Operations. He stood outside a building on First Street in the City of Newburgh to discuss the investigation that began two months ago.
“So, the point of this investigation is this: what can the state be doing to step in and provide better tools? What laws can we be amending? Where in the state building code can we be looking at to change? Is there legal housing that’s deplorable that should be illegal housing?” Skoufis says. “What effectively can we all be doing to work together to make sure that people are not living in buildings like the one that we’re standing in front of today.”
His investigations unit is specifically examining four municipalities: the cities of Albany, Mount Vernon in Westchester County and Newburgh, along with the Town of Ramapo in Rockland County. Skoufis says, to date, all four have been cooperating with the investigation.
“There will be a public hearing, at least one, related to this investigation. There will be at least one local, regional public hearing in the Hudson Valley where we’re going to elicit the testimony of all the stakeholders, including the slumlords. We’re going to request their presence at these hearings,” Skoufis says. “If they don’t come willingly, we have subpoena power. And I think the committee is ready to use it if necessary.”
He says the regional public hearing likely will take place in the next month or so. Skoufis says the investigation aims to identify best practices as well as recommend legislative and regulatory changes to create a safer state for residents and first responders.
“We have heard the horror stories and we have seen the documentation of firefighters running into smoke-filled buildings that are illegally subdivided, and they’re bumping into walls that should not be there,” says Skoufis.
William Horton is City of Newburgh assistant fire chief and building inspector/code compliance supervisor. He says his office is dealing with a nearly 30 percent poverty rate; some 70 percent of buildings that are non-owner occupied, housing stock more than 120 years old, and a lack of local government resources.
“We alone can’t do it,” Horton says. “We can’t put three code officers out every day to handle over 10,000 housing units.”
“Our goal at the end is that every house in the city is safe, secure and compliant,” says Horton. “And that’s the only way we can get there is with the help of the state.”
Jonathan Jacobson is a Democratic state Assemblyman from Newburgh:
“Proper code enforcement will strengthen neighborhoods, stabilize neighborhoods and also stabilize property values,” Jacobson says. “You need that in order to have a vibrant city.”
He says if new laws are necessary, he will sponsor them. Skoufis says the investigation has revealed the following:
“We are identifying a major problem on the court side, the judicial side of all of this, where slumlords who are repeat offenders, in some cases, don’t show up in court dozens and dozens of times a year for repeat violations for a single property. And, each time, it’s a $250 fine," Skoufis says. "You would think that perhaps after the fifth or the tenth or the 20th repeat violation, there’s something more than a $250 fine. For a lot of these slumlords, it’s the cost of doing business.”
And he says the time is right to address code enforcement.
“In light of especially the housing debates that are taking place in the state legislature this year — rent control laws expire, vacancy decontrol — these are all very timely issues,” says Skoufis. “I want to inject this component of the housing set of issues into the forefront so that hopefully we can also tackle this as we’re discussing these broader housing issues in the legislature.”
Skoufis is working with Senator Alessandra Biaggi on the Mount Vernon inquiry and Senator David Carlucci on the Ramapo investigation. Both Democrats also serve on the Senate's investigations committee.
This is the second investigation Skoufis has opened, the first being an examination of pharmacy benefit manager practices. A third, unannounced investigation is also under way. Skoufis says each investigation will yield a report with findings and recommendations.