HORNELL — For more than a decade, Hornell officials have sought to reverse the Maple City’s blight.

The keystone of that effort — a city law requiring inspections every time a tenant moves out — has succeeded in making sure that properties are safe, said Mayor Shawn Hogan.

It has also become a model for other cities in Western New York.

Olean, which first looked at Hornell’s law six years ago, is now poised to approve a similar law. A public hearing is set for Tuesday with possible approval on Nov. 28.

But it will take more than inspections for a city to improve its housing stock, said Hogan who will retire in January after more than 30 years as mayor.

TURNING THE TIDE

Nestled in Steuben County between the steep hills of the upper Canisteo River valley, Hornell has seen its fair share of economic upheaval. Like many Rust Belt cities, the decline came with closings — the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad car shop closed in 1960, with officials spending decades attracting and retaining businesses like Alstom's railcar manufacturing and refurbishment center.

That decline led to lower property values and attracted absentee landlords who converted old, large single family homes into multiple-unit rentals.

But, some of those dwellings did not meet code standards, leaving the neighborhoods with even lower property values. And with 4,300 housing units in the city, and half of those rentals, Hogan said the problems were compounded by the age of the properties.

“The average housing stock age is 125 years,” dating to the 19th century, Hogan said. The result was many homes with a host of code violations including potentially hazardous wiring, old, leaky roofs and other issues.

In response, the city council passed a law in 2006 to require rental unit inspections upon vacancy or every 30 months, whichever comes sooner.

A SPREADING MODEL

It’s a model Olean officials have attempted to adopt over the past six years — and one others already use.

Of 10 other cities in Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania with populations within about 5,000 of Olean’s population — which is just shy of 14,000 — eight require residential rental inspections in some form. Officials in Batavia, Bradford, Pa., Canandaigua, Corning, Geneva, Hornell, Lackawanna and Tonawanda have passed laws over the past 20 years that allow for regular inspections of rental properties. Only Dunkirk and Oswego do not.

Not all cities do it the same way. Batavia, for example, only inspects structures with three or more rental units, while some like Hornell require all residential and commercial rentals to be inspected. How often cities inspect also varies, from every vacancy to a regular basis regardless of occupancy.

Fees also collected by other cities vary greatly from free in Batavia to starting at $50 for a single-unit structure in Lackawanna. Some like Corning use fees collected from landlord registrations to cover inspections.

In Dunkirk, the common council is looking at whether to adopt an inspection law, officials said. In Oswego, inspections are not required, but landlords are required to register and file a notarized statement declaring that properties meet state building codes. Offering a false instrument for filing is a class A misdemeanor.

Linda Witte, who was mayor of Olean from 2010 to 2014, said she went to Hornell six years ago when the Common Council began work on what became the city’s landlord registration law. Recently, city officials involved with code enforcement traveled to Hornell to learn about the program. The Olean proposal, said city attorney Nick DiCerbo, was written using Hornell’s law as a template due to its success and its ability to withstand legal challenges.

BUMPS IN THE ROAD

When introduced, the Hornell program wasn’t met with universal approval.

“Anytime you try to do something it's change — and change strikes a lot of fear into a lot of hearts,” Hogan said. “Anytime you mention there's a fee involved — that you're going to hit someone's pocketbook — it becomes more of an issue.”

A group of landlords formed — the Hornell Area Rental Property Owners — to voice their opposition.

“Their main thing was to challenge the inspections,” Hogan said.

A lawsuit soon followed.

The case, Tarantino v. City of Hornell, was filed in 2007 in federal court. The court upheld the inspection requirement as “rationally related to the legitimate governmental purpose” of enforcing building codes. The ruling was affirmed in a 2010 decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Since then, the property owners group has disbanded and over time, the city’s code enforcement program has been embraced, Hogan said.

The city sees relatively few violations now.

“We try for voluntary compliance – which is the better way to go,” Hogan said.

Inspections have increased from 468 in 2015 to 564 in 2016 and 733 through Sept. 30, 2017.

At the same time, ticketing for renting out apartments without city certificates has trickled to 11 in 2015, 19 in 2016 and seven through Sept. 30, 2017.

If a property fails an inspection, the codes office gives the landlord 30 days to remedy, and then a second inspection is performed at no cost.

“Right now, we have pretty good compliance,” Hogan said.

MORE THAN INSPECTIONS

But a comprehensive approach beyond inspections is needed, Hogan said

In 2008, the city overhauled its codes office, creating a new hierarchy under a Facilities Management and Neighborhood Revitalization directorship.

In recent years, the city paid $10,000 for a housing market analysis. With that data, the city had a blueprint to spur development. Several developers have built or renovated properties in the city, with hundreds of new apartments.

“This $10,000 investment by the city has resulted in $27 million in investment in housing in the city,” Hogan said.

Along with new construction around the city, Home Leasing LLC wrapped up a $9.3 million renovation of the vacant Lincoln School building, taking a vacant, blighted property and turning it into senior housing. State assistance in the form of $1.75 million from the state Homes and Community Renewal Office made the project viable, Hogan said, and the grand opening was June 9. Public-private partnerships, like that between the Hornell Housing Authority and Edgemere Development, let to almost 160 new units in the city.

To help homeowners fix up their properties, the city has also been aggressive in applying for federally-funded and state-managed Small Cities Community Development Block Grants. The city has received awards seven times for housing rehabilitation since 2004, with a total of $2.87 million awarded to the city. Those funds, Hogan said, have gone to help with building repairs at owner-occupied dwellings around the city.

BUILDING WITH BOCES

A unique Hornell approach has been involving Greater Southern Tier BOCES Wildwood Campus.

With many dilapidated properties turning over frequently at tax auctions, the city began acquiring and demolishing them, leaving prime residential real estate.

That’s where BOCES building trades students come in, he said.

Under the program, the city pays to lay a foundation. Then, the city funds materials for students to build a home at the campus. When ready, the city hauls it to the site and assembles it. The city sells the house, preferably to a first-time homebuyer, for the cost of materials — between $95,000 and $125,000. Those funds then go to cover demolitions and materials for another home.

“We sold it for exactly what we had into it,” he said, adding one house was sold for $124,000, but appraised at $150,000. “They had $30,000 in equity and they hadn't lived a day in it.

“We've done that eight times,” Hogan said. “We've filled up every vacant lot we had.”

In addition to replacing older buildings and helping new homebuyers, the city has found another advantage.

“We've added to our tax rolls over $1 million through this program,” he said.

(This story was done in collaboration with Rose Ciotta of the Investigative Editing Corps.)

(Contact reporter-editor Bob Clark at bclark@oleantimesherald.com.)

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