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Some say Oswego's landlord crackdown went too far

Payne Horning
WRVO News File Photo
Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow has led a campaign to better enforce the city code, leaving some properties condemned and innocent tenants homeless.

As SUNY Oswego junior Alyssa Lopez reflects on her fall semester, it's hard to forget the moment when she was on the edge of being homeless. She and her roommates got a call from the city of Oswego's code enforcement department in September to investigate the houses's front porch, which was rotting and falling apart. After one visit, the place she was calling home was condemned.

"It’s terrifying," Lopez said. "I just started here, I want to get good grades and make a good impression on my teachers and now I have to miss class to talk to the student affairs attorney, fill out applications for other places. I had to miss class in order to move my things from one building to another building. I'm three weeks in - I shouldn't have to do that. I should know when I come up here, I have a place to lay my head at night."

Lopez and her roommates were able to find permanent housing after the ordeal and successfully sued their landlord and got their security deposits back, but they are just one of several tenants Oswego officials evicted in their crackdown campaign. According to city hall records, the code enforcement department condemned a total of 21 properties last fall.

Mayor Billy Barlow touted the crackdown during his year-end speech before the Oswego Common Council. Barlow said since he moved the code enforcement department from the fire department, they've logged more complaints and violations and seen a substantial increase in the issuance of rental permits. This is all proof, Barlow says, that he's delivering on his election promises.

"Ultimately what we’re doing is standing up for tenant’s rights where these folks may be living in conditions that are dangerous and they may not be aware that they’re dangerous or they may be trying to reach out to the landlord and the landlord doesn't return calls, promises to fix the property and never does," he said. 

Barlow says many of these properties were dilapidated to the point that they posed an immediate threat.

"A stairway that’s collapsing or a porch that’s falling off the house - that’s the instance where we go in and say, 'Look, you shouldn’t be living here. You need to go somewhere else.'"

Barlow says there has only been a handful of evictions. but it's been enough to draw criticism from some in the community. Residents like Valerie Donovan, an Oswego elementary school teacher, told the mayor at a common council meeting last year that she has seen first hand some families who have become homeless as a result of the city's campaign.

"If you continue with these mass evictions, our city is going to end up with families living under our bridges," Dononvan said.  

Donovan praised the city for going after negligent landlords, but she urged the city to slow down and find a better way to help the evicted tenants. Barlow says the city has been directing those affected to charitable organizations and services, like Catholic Charities in Fulton. Catholic Charities director of home and community services Helen Hoefer says she was contacted by one of those families who came home one day to a locked door.

"Code enforcement had closed their house and they couldn’t get in and they weren’t sure what they were going to do," Hoefer said. "I remember thinking, this is horrible. This is like a fire, you can’t get back into your house."

Hoefer helped the family find temporary lodging while they searched for and eventually found a permanent replacement. She commends the mayor for taking these steps, saying its about time the city began cleaning up its neighborhoods. Yet Hoefer does not necessarily agree with the way it's being handled.  

"The tenant - they're going to lose their security deposits, first and last month’s rent, not many people can come up with their rent again," Hoefer said. "It’s tough – and a security deposit and everything else that goes along. It costs thousands of dollars to get in a new place. That’s not easy." 

Hoefer says she has connected with the mayor's office to try to ensure smoother transitions for future evicted tenants. That may be necessary as Barlow has pledged to continue his efforts to improve the condition of Oswego's rental properties.

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.