Darlene Medley leads protesters in a demonstration at her rented property on Pond St. in Syracuse. Photo by Mike Greenlar | The Central Current.

Close to half of Syracuse’s 9,000 one and two-family homes are not in compliance with Syracuse’s rental registry, city records show. 

That means more than 4,000 rental properties in Syracuse have open violations of city codes and are not current with tax obligations, or have an expired rental registry certificate.

The rental registry, established about 15 years ago, requires property owners renting their homes in Syracuse to schedule an inspection with the city’s Division of Code Enforcement every three years and pay an application fee of $150.

An inspection, Director of Code Enforcement Jake Dishaw said, ensures that a home has “all the life safety components in place.” He listed safe plumbing, electrical, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning as examples.

As of Monday, 4,113 of the 8,467 homes accounted for in the rental registry were not in compliance or have an expired certificate, based on a digitized map uploaded to the city’s data portal. City officials made the map available on the Syracuse open data site for the first time last month.

The rental registry helps the city hold landlords accountable for the condition of their properties.

Landlords can be subject to a fine of $150, 15 days in jail, or both if they don’t apply for a rental registry certificate or if they fail to apply for a family resident exemption. A property owner is exempt from registration if the property is occupied by the owners’ spouse, parents, siblings, or children. There are approximately 600 family exemptions filed with the city, data shows.

“I think it’s a useful tool for people that want to rent or know someone who does,” Dishaw said. “It’s also public information and it should be readily available in a format like this. It builds accountability on both sides of the aisle, whether you are a landlord, or if you want to talk directly about city government.”

The numbers suggest landlords still largely ignore the rental registry. Dishaw noted that prior to taking over as director of codes in 2020, landlords “scoffed at applying to get caught up with the registry.”

He added there used to be no follow-through with landlords who ignored the registry. Dishaw directed the central permit office, overseeing building permits in Syracuse before becoming head of code enforcement. He was a structural examiner for code enforcement prior to that.

Jake Dishaw, director of code enforcement, city of Syracuse. Mike Greenlar | The Central Current.

“Inspectors went quadrant to quadrant, starting in the northwest, trying to get people to register,” he said. “Once we were done, at that quadrant of the city for that quarter of the year, we moved on to the next one. There was no accountability or follow-up with the people that didn’t get on the registry.”

The rental registry is seen by housing advocates as an important part of tenant advocacy. At a July protest, advocates called for access to the rental registry online, on-demand. That happened earlier this fall. Dishaw said it has always been the plan to make it available.

“It’s not as easy as it sounds to get this data in a usable format for the public,” he said. “Especially when you’re talking about some on-premises outdated software that we use for most of our management and trying to take data out of that and put it into a different format to put out to the public.”

Despite that, Dishaw said the program has been making progress. He attributes that progress to continued outreach and citations to landlords who are not in compliance, as well as proactive notices sent to property owners whose certificate is set to expire in the next 60 days. Dishaw added there have been net increases to compliance every month this year, as well as healthy revenues.

In the fiscal year 2021, application fees totaled around $250,000. The city projects $330,000 in application fees at the end of this year, Dishaw said, although it is unclear how much of that revenue comes from certificate renewals. 

That money goes into the city’s general fund, but it does provide leverage for the codes department when they request additional support for the program, Dishaw said. 

“We’re not satisfied where we are now,” he said. “Hopefully into next year and the year after, my goal is to get up to 75% compliance, and beyond that get up somewhere around 90%.”

Rental registry could go further, advocates say

For tenant advocates, the rental registry can be a lifeline for renters in eviction cases. Its recent availability online, they say, is a good first step in the right direction.

“It helps tenants know who owns the property and whether it has been inspected for safety,” said Palmer Harvey, a co-founder of the Syracuse Tenants Union. “That’s important, because a lot of times bad actors who rent out their property don’t apply for their certificate, or they tend to push it off as long as possible so that they can squeeze as much money out of the house as possible.”

A 2020 amendment to the rental registry local ordinance protects tenants from being evicted in a non-payment case if the property they inhabit is not in the rental registry. It also prevents landlords from collecting rent while the house is not in the rental registry. 

Non-compliance with the registry does not prevent landlords who join the registry to collect owed rent during the period of non-compliance, but even if they do join the registry later, they are not allowed to use the owed rent as a reason to evict. 

“That can slow down the pace of evictions,” Harvey said. “It forces landlords to do their due diligence and get the house in the rental registry, which also forces them to keep up the maintenance of the home since inspections have to happen every three years.”

Despite their legal potential, measures like that provision in the rental registry ordinance often come down to tenant education.

“The rental registry I have found to be irrelevant to tenants,” said Mary Traynor, a former attorney and an organizer with the Syracuse Tenants Organizing for Power (STOP!) coalition. “They don’t know about it. It doesn’t seem to matter.”

Traynor said attorneys representing tenants in non-payment cases seem to not know of this provision.

“It’s not publicized,” she said.

A potential solution, Harvey said, would be for eviction cases to be reviewed prior to a court hearing.

“Right now this is up to a tenant’s affirmative defense in court that the tenant has to bring up,” Harvey said. “Instead it should be the clerk’s office who checks if the property is in the rental registry before the case can be filed.”

As it stands, a majority of eviction filings and properties not compliant with the rental registry are found in the city’s Northside, Southside, and Westside.

“They are low income tenants, and therefore low-priority for enforcement of their rights, their equality and a right to live with dignity,” Traynor said. “They see large numbers of evictions, they see transient neighborhoods, and so people are disempowered, and do not have a political voice.”

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Follow Eddie Velazquez @ezvelazquez.

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