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Substandard housing: More of a problem than people think

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CANTON - When a family of five lost their home in a fire earlier this month in the town of Brasher, the town’s code enforcement officer noted the family shouldn’t have been living in the home, calling attention to the problem of substandard housing in St. Lawrence County.

That home in particular, which was occupied by its owners did not have a working septic system and its electricity was being supplied by extension cords connected to a neighbor’s home.

While this may be an extreme example of substandard housing, Potsdam Code Enforcement Officer James A. Plumley said similar housing can be found everywhere.

“Every township has them,” he said. “There are many, many thousands of violations out there that we don’t get a chance to see.”

Mr. Plumley said as a code enforcement officer, it’s their job to respond to violations “when we become aware of them.”

“Something could go on for years and years without us knowing about it,” he said, adding that over the course of a year he receives between 25 and 30 complaints.

“When we get them, we do something about it,” he said.

For a minor violation, that can simply be a follow up visit, but with more serious violations sometimes families have to be removed from the home.

“I can’t see myself allowing someone to live in an unsafe situation,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate thing that we have landlords and tenants out there who don’t take care of their properties or the places they are renting.” Brasher Code Enforcement Officer Robert W. Forbes said he feels like a large part of the problem is connected to the government.

“There won’t be a solution until the government does something about it,” he said. “With the government giving them money, they have no incentive to go out and get a job and this has gone on for decades.”

Another problem, he said, is how people choose to spend the money they do have.

“You have people driving $40,000 cars with top-of-the-line cell phones living in shacks,” he said. “Some people don’t have their priorities straight.”

Mr. Forbes said while the county has a lot of older homes, housing problems extend beyond vintage housing stock.

“There’s a lot of times with a new residence that they’ll not call me back to do the final inspection and move in behind my back,” he said, adding once people are in a home, it’s hard to get them out.

“You can’t go evicting everyone from their homes,” he said.

Mr. Forbes also noted state law only calls for inspections of units with three or more apartments, meaning that unless they’re notified of a complaint, the majority of violations are going to go unnoticed.

That being said, Mr. Forbes said he does not think increased inspections are the answer.

“What are you going to do if you find something? What can you do about it?” he asked. “You can give them a summons to appear in court, but it doesn’t usually go anywhere.”

When asked what he thought the solution would be, Mr. Forbes said he didn’t have the answer.

“I don’t really know what the answer would be,” he said. “You have to start at the top with the government, I guess.”

Mr. Plumley said in an ideal the world, the solution would be simple.

“It’s unfortunate that we can’t just wave a wand over the whole thing,” he said.

While substandard housing can be found just about everywhere, Anthony “Tony” McManaman, who handles code enforcement duties for Waddington and Louisville, said the problem isn’t that bad in the communities he serves.

“The problem I get is people who call and complain as a way to get back at their landlords,” he said, noting the calls often come as a tenant is being evicted.

“I would say 60 to 70 percent of the time it’s self-induced,” he said. “I would say 99 percent of the landlords (in Louisville and Waddington) keep their properties up.”

St. Lawrence County Department of Social Services Commissioner Chris R. Rediehs said he thinks the problem is deeper than many people realize.

“I fear there are many substandard homes out there that people may not be aware are substandard,” he said. “St. Lawrence County has many extremely well-built homes, but many of those homes are in need of repair.”

The problem, though, isn’t just limited to older homes, he said, agreeing with Mr. Forbes.

“We also have some newer homes that are really not up to code,” he said.

Through the department’s offering of temporary assistance, food stamps and HEAP (Home Energy Assistance Program), the people in his office come into contact with many of the people residing in substandard homes.

“This is one of the most significant problems in St. Lawrence County,” he said, adding some people simply can’t afford to keep up repairs on their homes.

“We have many people who own their own homes, but are unable to keep them up,” Mr. Rediehs said, adding residing in substandard housing can affect people in ways that most of us simply wouldn’t think about.

“This affects people in really deep ways,” he said. “When the roof is leaking things don’t usually go well in the home. When the roof leaks, it makes it harder to focus on what’s going on in life.”

Working to be part of the solution are the St. Lawrence County Housing Council and the St. Lawrence County Planning Office.

“Home repairs and home improvement grant seeking are part of our mission and part of our strategic plan,” St. Lawrence County Housing Council Interim Director Alan S. Hipps said.

This year, Mr. Hipps said, his department received requests for funding to help make repairs to 76 homes, far more than the number of people they’re actually able to assist.

“In a typical year we’re able to help about 20 people,” he said. “We have a waiting list.”

While the list may be lengthy, Mr. Hipps said he would encourage people who need help with their homes to go ahead and place their names on the list.

“Even if we’re unable to get to them right away, it gives us baseline data that we can use for our grant applications,” he said.

As for tenants who may find themselves paying to live in substandard homes, Mr. Hipps said he typically invites them to one of the council’s first-time home buyers classes.

That program, he said is able to help more people and helped approximately 30 families purchase homes of their own this year.

Many of the communities in St. Lawrence County also offer subsidized housing, where a tenant’s rent is calculated based on a percentage of their income.

“I think the number of calls we get versus the number of people we can help is an indication,” he said, adding that he too feels like the problem is more widespread than many people think.

Jason C. Pfotenhauer is the St. Lawrence County Planning Department’s deputy director and his agency also helps to bring housing rehabilitation funds to communities across the county.

“We’ve written grant applications over the years for housing repairs for various communities in the county,” he said. “It’s a problem that’s found in every community in St. Lawrence County.”

Typically, those grants are Community Development Block Grants which are awarded $400,000 at a time.

“That may sound like a lot, but it’s really not,” he said, adding $400,000 is usually enough to make repairs on 12 to 14 homes.

“It’s easy for us to find 12 or 14 substandard homes,” he said. “There are many more in some communities and it’s unfortunate that we’re not able to help more people.”

This year, Mr. Pfotenhauer said, Fowler, Ogdensburg, Gouverneur and Massena all received housing rehabilitation grants.

Citing the 2006-2010 American Communities Survey (ACS), Mr. Pfotenhauer offered some statistics to show how serious the problem is.

■ There are 51,845 housing units in the county, 73 percent of which were constructed before 1970. These homes were built before lead-based paint was prohibited in 1978 and are at risk from significant lead-based paint hazards.

■ Mobile Homes constitute 12.2 percent of the county’s housing stock, compared to 2.5 statewide.

■ The median value of existing homes in the county was $79,600, which is only 26 percent of the state’s median level of $303,900.

He also offered some statistics from HUD’s Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy Report that was part of the 2005-2009 ACS.

Based on that report, he said, 11,030 households in the county are occupied by renters with 43 percent of them experiencing some sort of housing problem. Housing problems are defined as paying more than 30 percent of your gross income in housing expenses, living in overcrowded conditions (more than one person per room) or living without complete kitchen or plumbing facilities. Ninety-five percent of those households are occupied by families with a low to moderate income.

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