Cortland landlord accuses city of ‘selectively enforcing’ rental property laws

2 James Street. The property owner, Gerald Ruggiero, argued that the city's code enforcement office denied him a rental permit without following proper procedure. The Zoning Board of Appeals agreed (Photo: Google Maps).

2 James Street. The property owner, Gerald Ruggiero, argued that the city’s code enforcement office denied him a rental permit without following proper procedure. The city’s Zoning Board of Appeals agreed (Photo: Google Maps).

CORTLAND, N.Y. — At its latest monthly meeting, Cortland’s Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) heard a landlord’s claim that the city’s code office acted improperly when it refused to issue a rental permit for one of his properties.

The board met Monday to discuss the decision by the city’s code enforcement office not to issue a rental permit for a residential property at 2 James Street owned by Gerald Ruggiero, a local landlord who owns a number of rental properties in the Cortland area.

Ruggiero argued that the city’s code enforcement office did not follow proper procedure when it denied him a rental permit because the office failed to issue a required notice of violation.

The zoning board ultimately agreed with Ruggiero, voting 4-1 that “the denial of the rental permit of 2 James Street was found to be procedurally incorrect.” Board member Beau Harbin voted against the measure.

At Monday’s meeting, Ruggiero also accused the city’s code enforcement office of practicing favoritism towards certain landlords when it came to enforcement of the city’s rental permit laws.

“They are intentionally selectively enforcing zoning laws,” he said. “They denied me this permit for political reasons.”

Thomas Tobin, code enforcement officer for the city, said the code office decided not to issue the permit because Ruggiero listed ‘14’ as the maximum number of occupants in the house.

Ruggiero said that under New York State property maintenance code, he is required to list the maximum number of occupants that could legally live at the home, but does not intend to accept that many tenants. He told board members that five tenants have signed leases to live at the house, which has 9 bedrooms.

Some board members argued that Ruggiero’s intended use for the property should be considered when issuing rental permits.

An ongoing conflict

Several other local landlords attended Monday’s BZA meeting, with some vocally expressing support for Ruggiero’s claims.

Steve Muka, who owns several rental properties in the area, said the city’s selective enforcement of rental property laws over the years has had a negative impact on the city’s housing stock.

“There’s an amazing amount of damage that has resulted from massive unfairness,” Muka said. “It’s very upsetting to know that … certain landlords just get a pass.

“There’s probably going to be a class-action lawsuit at some point because it’s so unfair,” he added.

Landlord Jim Reeners, who also owns rental properties in the city, said he hadn’t heard an exact reason for why the permit was denied.

Ruggiero has butted heads with city officials over rental property regulations for at least the past six years.

In 2010, Ruggiero and about a dozen other landlords filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the city’s rental housing permit law, which was passed in 2009 and required landlords to register their rental properties with the city. The landlords argued that the law violated the Fourth Amendment rights of landlords by allowing code officers to access buildings without a warrant.

The landlords also argued that the law’s so-called “three-unrelated provision,” which states that no more than three unrelated people can reside in a single-family home, was unconstitutional and would be “financially devastating” to local rental property owners. After Rumsey’s ruling, city lawmakers amended the law to eliminate the potential for warrantless searches.

Ruggiero filed another lawsuit against the city in 2015, in which he argued that the city illegally granted approval of a neighboring property owner’s expansion of a parking lot. Judge Rumsey ended up dismissing that lawsuit.

The three-unrelated clause remains part of the city’s rental housing permit law, though Ruggiero claims the city selectively enforces this provision by giving some landlords a pass.

“We need to fix this,” he said. “This three-unrelated law is being enforced unequally. It’s going to get more illegal. The system is just broken.”