NYS Legislature OKs Law Letting Syracuse Add Unpaid Housing Fines to Tax Bills

Legislation Update
June 21, 2018

Source: syracuse.com

Additional Resource:

New York State Assembly (A00416 full text)

ALBANY, N.Y. -- State lawmakers Wednesday approved a law that would let the city of Syracuse add unpaid code violations to a property owner's tax bill.

The law is intended as a tool to leverage bad landlords into fixing their properties or paying their fines. It does not apply to owner-occupied homes, and it includes protections for tenants.

If approved by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the law would force persistent code scofflaws to pay for violations or face seizure of their property. It gives the city another tool to fight blight while saving time and resources often wasted on legal battles.

Currently, the city has to take a property owner to court to collect on unpaid code violations. There are about 8,000 outstanding violations in the city.

If a tax bill goes unpaid, the city can seize the property and transfer it to the Land Bank, which can re-sell it, renovate it or demolish it.

Those 8,000 outstanding infractions include exterior issues on vacant properties, which can have multiple violations for things like overgrown grass or broken windows. About one-third of the violations are interior, which include health and safety concerns.

In order to be added to the tax bill, a fine must be unpaid for at least one year, according to the legislature's law. The total fine must be at least 5 percent of the assessed value of the property before it can be added to the tax bill.

The new law, if approved, would add to a series of more aggressive efforts in Syracuse to punish owners of derelict properties and fight neighborhood blight. In March, the Common Council passed a law mandating interior inspections for one- and two-family rental properties.
The city is also finalizing plans for a Municipal Violations Bureau, a sort of codes court for non-compliant property owners. It should be up-and-running in the next few months.
"This bill, together with our newly-created Municipal Violations Bureau, goes hand in hand in holding those who ignore health and safety violations more accountable and incentivize compliance from the start," said Stephanie Pasquale, commissioner of neighborhood and business development.

The MVB will handle run-of-the-mill code violations, freeing up the city law department to more actively pursue the city's worst offenders. Currently, dealing with minor violations chews up lots of time and resources for city lawyers.

State Sen. John DeFrancisco and Assemblyman William Magnarelli have been pushing the code violation law for at least three years. DeFrancisco sponsored similar bills that passed in the state Senate in 2015 and 2016.

"The goal of this bill [is] to hold landlords in Syracuse accountable who continuously ignore housing code violations," DeFrancisco said in a statement. "It would also help the city enforce its collection of any associated penalties and fines, reduce administrative costs incurred in the process, and improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods."

In prior years, the Senate bill fizzled in the state Assembly. This year it passed, Magnarelli said, because of changes to address some issues like concerns over tenants and owner-occupants.

The law was tweaked to protect owner-occupants and to require the city to make arrangements for tenants in a multi-unit property before seizing it. It also made sure to outline mandate adjudication of a violation before adding a fine to the tax bill.

"We're not trying to take a senior citizen's home because they failed to mow the grass," Magnarelli said. "This is about absentee landlords."

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