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Carroll Brown and Rob Nicklaw, Section 8 inspectors, sit in their office.|Brendan Krisel, staff photo

Syracuse Section 8 inspectors ensure proper living conditions for over 2,800 families

Brendan_Krisel

Building inspector.

Not psychologist, counselor or ambassador.

Carroll Brown works full time as an inspector for Section 8 in Syracuse, an often tedious and emotionally draining task that the job description doesn’t even begin to capture.

He puts it this way:

“We’re inspectors. We do buildings; we’re not sociologists. A lot of times we don’t know how to deal with people and their problems. We listen to them, we don’t just blow them off, but it’s very difficult for somebody like us to sit there and listen to it. It just wears us down.”

Section 8 is a federally subsidized housing voucher program that provides checks directly to landlords of low-income residents, capping what they pay at no more than 30 percent of their income toward rent, said Michael Carey, the housing assistance payments program supervisor for the Syracuse Housing Authority.

Three Reasons for Inspection

Any person who qualifies for a Section 8 subsidy must find a landlord who accepts it, and then ask that the property be inspected to make sure it meets standards. If it does, the tenant can move in. If a property fails the move-in inspection, the tenant has to wait until problems are fixed and the property’s re-inspected. Move-in inspections are when inspectors detect most problems because new landlords are often unaware of Section 8 standards.

Every property is inspected once annually. This inspection is known as the peak inspection. Many problems surface during this inspection after building up for a year with no effort by the landlord or tenant to fix them.

If a landlord refuses to address problems voiced by the tenant, the Section 8 inspectors can be called in to examine the problem. Common complaints include lack of heat during the winter or screens for windows during the summer, and the number of complaints stays consistent throughout the year, Brown said.

The Syracuse Housing Authority is responsible for running Section 8 in Onondaga County and Phoenix, New York, handling about 3,400 households, Carey said. Most people receiving Section 8 from the Syracuse Housing Authority live in either Onondaga County or Phoenix, but the housing authority does “port out” if participants find landlords who are willing to accept a voucher that was originally administered in Syracuse, Carey said.

But before tenants can use their Section 8 voucher, an inspector from the Section 8 office must make sure the property meets the program’s minimum standards for quality and safety. The Section 8 office in Syracuse employs three inspectors: Rob Nicklaw, Carroll Brown and Charles Johnson. Each works a 36-hour week and can inspect up to 10 houses a day, making a range of $33,000 to $42,000 a year.

But the work of the inspectors goes beyond the building. For many tenants the inspectors serve as representatives of the Section 8 program said Brown, who has been an inspector for seven years.

“First and foremost we’re building relationships, because we are going to be dealing with these people time and time and time again. And we’re the face of Section 8 when we’re out there,” Brown said.

Brown said that on each inspection he tries to compliment the tenants on their housekeeping, to encourage them about the inspection process. He treats every inspection as though he were a guest. If tenants decide they don’t want him to be there, he reschedules.

Brown recalled being chased to his car by a tenant yelling at him. Sometimes he’s felt so uncomfortable before a walk-through that he’s called it off, too uneasy and wary to enter.

In fact, most of the time the inspectors go in blind, Brown said. The most common surprise for them: pets. Brown was bitten by a pit bull during an inspection his first year on the job.

Carroll Brown, 63, Section 8 Inspector for 7 years

“Believe it or not somebody called up and said, ‘There’s a civil service exam for inspectors, you should take it.’ So I did, and I did very well. Took the exam, pretty much forgot about it, and then almost a year to the date got a call saying ‘Hey, do you want a job?’ And that was the start of it, got through the interview process and started working.”

“Keeping my opinions to myself. Like I said you have to walk in there non-committal, you don’t want to start a bias, you can’t interfere with a tenant or landlord’s decision to rent or to not rent. The marketplace is supposed to work by itself. We can’t go in there and tell the tenant it’s no good or tell the landlord it’s not a good tenant or visa versa. You just keep your mouth shut and do your job.”

“I mean there’s a lot of little things but there’s no epiphany or a, ‘Ha ha, gee I’m glad I’m a public servant’ type moment. They just don’t exist, I think because of the nature of the job and the way we have to do our job and not get involved. It eliminates high points. So we just take it in stride if something comes up that could be celebrated, we’re just not interested.”

“Mostly it was the burnout. The girl was sitting on the steps, went there and it was cold, and you know ask how she’s doing and of course she burst into tears. How do you not get involved with somebody like that? But we talked and the landlord was actually a great landlord, he got things moving forward. It burned down at night and he was there in the morning getting things going and getting her into another place real quick, so that was one of those good relationships that even though it was bad, it could have been worse.”

The inspectors also find themselves dealing with other people’s relationships as well, usually the relationship between landlords and tenants.

“Whether it’s neighborhood relationships or differences between landlords and tenants or tenants and tenants, basically all we can do is listen to them and say, ‘Yes I understand. However, we’re not in a position to do anything about it,’ ” Brown said.

The inspectors hear from landlords, too, who have problems with the way tenants treat their properties. Properties inspectors visit can vary dramatically. A few weeks ago Nicklaw inspected a home where the tenant was such a heavy smoker that the walls were covered in brown tar dribbling down onto the floor.

Tensions between landlords and tenants can get extreme, Nicklaw said.

“Years ago there was a building over on Bellevue Avenue, it was a three- or four- story brick building. There was a young lady in there that had some mental issues and apparently she had a falling out with the landlord and she moved out without notifying anybody,” Nicklaw said. “She plugged the drain on the tub and left the water running, and this was on the third floor. The water ran down and the ceilings caved in two floors below her.”

How does CNY Fair Housing try to see that laws are followed?

CNY Fair Housing has worked with the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County in recent years to improve its enforcement abilities and to create awareness about fair housing in the area. CNY Fair Housing is developing a new website and moving into a new office that will be more readily accessible to clients, especially those with disabilities.

CNY Fair Housing accepts about 350 complaints each year. About 75 percent of these come from Onondaga County and about 40 percent come from the city of Syracuse. The majority of complaints relate to landlord-tenant issues, rather than fair housing, and involve habitability, evictions and privacy. CNY Fair Housing advises these tenants of their rights. CNY Fair Housing does investigate to determine if the problems are a result of discrimination when the complainants are members of a protected class as defined by law. About 60 percent of the fair housing complaints received by CNY Fair Housing are related to disability. Family status is the No. 2 complaint, and then race.

CNY Fair Housing also tests whether patterns of discrimination exist against a particular protected class or within a particular geographic area. In 2013, CNY Fair Housing, under contract with the city of Syracuse, tested familial status discrimination in the Syracuse University neighborhood. In eight out of the 10 instances that were tested, there was some evidence of disparate treatment of families with children. In three out of the 10 tests, the instances were severe enough to warrant legal action. CNY Fair Housing says it has worked to educate these landlords about the law; it may pursue legal action if things don’t improve.

— CNY Fair Housing Report

Section 8: What is it, and how well does it work?

Section 8, or the tenant-based rental assistance program, allows households to move to better neighborhoods by providing them with housing vouchers that assure they’ll have to pay no more than 30 percent of their income toward rent.

Under Section 8, a landlord with a tenant on Section 8 is paid the difference between market rent and 30 percent of the tenant’s income. By obtaining a voucher, families can search for housing with better economic and educational opportunities, but oftentimes they have difficulty finding a property that will take Section 8. In a local survey, of 712 housing advertisements on Craigslist, only 25 said they would take Section 8; 94 said they prohibit Section 8; and 593 were silent on the issue.

One concern with Section 8 housing is that the majority of households with vouchers live in areas of low opportunity. Some 66 percent of households with vouchers are in areas with very low or low housing opportunity and only 12 percent live in areas of high opportunity. For educational opportunity, 68 percent live in areas of low or very low educational outcomes. Families with housing vouchers do better in economic opportunity. But 48 percent are still in areas of very low or low economic opportunity, whereas 35 percent are in areas with high or very high economic opportunity. The voucher program is in place to help households move out of areas with low opportunities, yet it falls short of that goal.

— CNY Fair Housing Report

What is CNY Fair Housing, and how does it work with the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County?

CNY Fair Housing is a private, nonprofit organization that’s known as a “qualified fair housing enforcement agency,” which means it is recognized as a good judge of housing standards and practices.

It works with the city and county to assess impediments to fair housing, and to dismantle them. It recently performed a comprehensive review, which is required because we get a lot of money here in Central New York from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD wants to assure fair housing laws are being followed. Among a number of things, the city and county are supposed to ensure:

  • That housing is evaluated in this jurisdiction, and that discrimination is identified and eliminated.
  • That fair housing choices are available for everyone, including racially and ethnically diverse populations.
  • That fair housing is accessible to — and usable by — all people, particularly those with disabilities.

— CNY Fair Housing Report

But however tense any relationship may be, the inspectors work to avoid getting attached or having a bias, Brown said. They are “not the touchy-feely type,” but the “nuts-and-bolts type.”

Brown said he is only ever “haunted” when he experiences a dysfunctional tenant who has children. He may have to call Child Protective Services or notify his supervisor.

Nicklaw said he once inspected a property of a mother of six, where children were locked in the bathroom and pit bulls confined in a closet. The smell of dog feces filled the apartment.

During visits the inspectors check each room for proper structural conditions in the walls, floors and ceilings, as well as electricity, heat and the presence of lead-based paint. They note any code violations, and ultimately whether the property passes or fails. About 25 percent of houses receive a failing grade after inspection, Brown and Nicklaw said.

If a property fails, the landlord gets 30 days to fix it. After that, the leasing agreement between landlord and tenant is terminated and the tenant gets approval to move. If an inspector identifies any life-threatening structural damage during the inspection the lease is terminated immediately. On average, 2 to 5 contracts are terminated every month, Brown and Nicklaw said.

For some problems to be fixed 30 days is not enough, and the landlord receives an extension. Or, if a landlord fixes the problem before the tenant moves to a new location the property can receive a third inspection, Nicklaw said. If the property passes, the landlord and tenant may agree on a new lease.

After returning from a long day of inspections, Brown said he’s always ready to go home. The work’s not particularly challenging, and going through the motions can be tedious. He’s anxious to escape the problems of others that he sees on a day-to-day routine.

“Nothing goes home. If it does it’s ‘Ha ha ha guess what happened to me today?’” Brown said.

Rob Nicklaw, 59, Section 8 inspector for 30 years

“It was a job, seemed like a good job helping people find safe, decent sanitary housing, and I didn’t plan on being here this long. I tried starting a business after I’d been here for several years, that didn’t pan out. Then I ended up with some health issues and woke up one morning and I’d been here 30 years.”

“Dealing with people’s personal issues. A lot of times you’re out trying to do an inspection and like I said before we deal with a lot of folks who are mentally challenged and sometimes that can be very difficult.”

“The most rewarding is helping those folks who really have trouble navigating society and helping them find safe, decent sanitary housing. I was at the VanKeuren building yesterday, which is a property for homeless veterans. I mean that’s great, the guy that I was talking with yesterday there has the best place he’s ever lived in his life.”

“I went to do an inspection for this young lady in her early 20’s who had about six children. It was in the winter, the children were running around naked in the apartment, there were a couple that were locked in the bathroom. There were a couple of pit bulls locked in a closet. There was a stench of dog feces throughout the apartment and there was dog feces everywhere. Several windows in the apartment were broken from the inside out so it was very cold in there. There was old food on the counter in the kitchen that roaches were eating and just practically living in. It was just a sad situation for the children to be in. That was probably 15 years ago. That’s one that sticks in your mind, that’s not something you’re going to forget about.”

Max AntonucciSyracuse Section 8 inspectors ensure proper living conditions for over 2,800 families
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