Breaking Down The Slum Lord's Game Plan

Niagara Gazette Guest View by Seth Piccirillo - June 11, 2017

The largescale slumlords who victimize our community tend to stick to a predictable game plan, requiring two essential commodities: time and space.

Time and space allow the slumlord to ignore strong words from local leaders and pleas for help from victimized citizens, while the money keeps coming in. Time to continue collecting rents, legal or illegal, while moving money to whichever creditor is the most dangerous to the slumlord’s racket at that moment. Space to collect money freely, from tenants and the government, while making sure that the tenants, neighbors, courts and systems that he takes advantage of never connect the dots. The slumlord needs space between his victims also, so the dollars keep flowing, while willing to threaten anyone who calls the game plan what it is: criminal.

A public official’s empathy towards the slumlord’s tenant or neighbor carries no weight if illegal activity continues months and years after that conversation. No leadership is shown when a judge, public official, or bureaucrat fails to apply an appropriate penalty for the slumlord’s illegal activity. Leniency is easy when you do not live next to the problem. A media story that highlights the slumlord’s injustice at one address may shine a light on illegal activity, but the game plan is still working at dozens of other houses under the cover of darkness.

So, what should our community’s game plan against the slumlord be?

1. Eliminate comfortable access to time and space.

2. Call out wrongdoing when we see it. Mr. Ralph Pescrillo owns many properties in the City of Niagara Falls, spread out among at least five separate companies. WIVB News recently highlighted a situation on North Avenue in which he was collecting rent in a house he lost to bank foreclosure while simultaneously failing to pay the water bills. That resulted in a pregnant tenant losing water service. This is not an isolated event. Neighborhood Legal Services, Inc. has several ongoing cases against this specific property owner. We see examples of blatant tenants’ rights violations throughout our city, on streets like Chilton Avenue, Grand Avenue, Eighth Street, and many more.

Media attention, lawsuits, bankruptcy, foreclosure, and suspension from the city’s leased housing program have not interrupted this particular game plan, the ability to maneuver the courts, or access to public dollars. His properties can still accept tenants with Niagara County Department of Social Services (DSS) housing vouchers without the department conducting inspections, researching tax status, impending bank foreclosure or utility status prior to shutoff notice. Only property condemnation raises a red flag. If the DSS program is designed to help families, subjecting them to insecure housing contradicts that mission. If we are being honest with ourselves as a community, then rewarding this type of behavior with public funds does not pass the common sense test. Our department, on behalf of the neighborhoods, has raised these issues in the past, only to be given well-constructed and practiced responses about the limitations of the legal system or why bureaucratic hands are tied.

A house maintained by a caring homeowner, is a neighborhood victory. So is the conversion of a long vacant building or a renovated storefront. However, individual wins will not sustain the entire community if we accept and support the actions of known slumlords. If we do, Niagara Falls will lose the time and space needed to continuously improve.

If you are a tenant and feel like your rights are being violated, a neighbor living next to a slumlord’s property, or a citizen being threatened by a property owner, there is no reason to go it alone. There is strength in numbers, and legal resources that can assist you. Please call (716) 286-8001 and leave a message. You can remain anonymous without remaining silent.

Seth Piccirillo is director of the Niagara Falls Community Development Department, and a proud city resident.