A closer look

Notices are seen on the windows and doors of 661 Factory Street Inn & Lodging in Watertown after it was condemned Aug. 8. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

The abrupt closure of an apartment complex in Watertown two weeks ago exposed a couple of serious problems.

On Aug. 8, the Code Enforcement Department condemned 661 Factory Street Inn & Lodging on the city’s north side. The building’s fire alarm system wasn’t working properly, and other sanitary and structural issues were cited with the 25-unit structure.

This left dozens of people without anywhere to live. Some of them camped out in tents near the apartment building on Factory Street.

Residents donated food and other items to help those who had no shelter. This attracted homeless individuals from other parts of the city as well.

Tenants said they were told by the landlord that the problems would be addressed and that they’d be able to return to their apartments on Aug. 10. But sadly, the complex remains closed.

Timothy Ruetten, director of the Jefferson County Community Services Department, issued a news release Thursday stating that all tenants “have been provided with basic essential needs and connected with any community supports available to them if they were willing,” according to a story published Thursday by the Watertown Daily Times. Ruetten served as the ad-hoc coordinator for the county’s response to the situation.

“Mr. Ruetten said the county response began the evening of Aug. 9 when Jefferson County administration asked the county Social Services and Community Services departments, as well as the Jefferson County Public Health Service, to mobilize,” the article reported. “Over the following 10 days, numerous area agencies were tasked with providing various services, Mr. Ruetten said, including finding alternative housing; maintaining hygiene and sanitary conditions at the site; the sourcing and assembling of on-site emergency shelters; logistical coordination of food, water and hygiene items; crisis counseling; care coordination; connection to health care; and other necessities. Those agencies have made all the contacts with former residents of the apartment building they are able to, Mr. Ruetten said in Thursday’s statement.”

661 Factory Street Inn & Lodging caters to low-income tenants and is often used by government agencies to house individuals needing social services on a short-term basis. The problem with helping people in the region who fall into this category was exacerbated by the destruction of the Rainbow Motel last year and the recent closure of other local apartment buildings.

We commend all government authorities who helped the 661 Factory Street Inn & Lodging tenants find the services they need. They responded well to this crisis and made life better for those affected by the building’s closure.

But the incident showed how complicated homelessness is in the north country. A failed fire alarm system immediately displaced about 40 people.

It’s rare that food and shelter need to be found for this many people on such short notice. Representatives from municipal, state and federal agencies should discuss contingency plans for similar events in Northern New York.

The building’s closure also raised the issue of how to ensure rental properties are clean, safe and structurally sound. When serving as a member of the Watertown City Council five years ago, Stephen Jennings advocated a rental inspection program.

Having such an initiative could well have resulted in the problems with 661 Factory Street Inn & Lodging being discovered much earlier than they were. In a column he wrote that was published Aug. 31, 2016, by the Watertown Daily Times, Jennings outlined why the city should implement his plan for a rental inspection program.

“The city of Watertown maintains a code enforcement program that is complaint-based. Our code enforcement personnel respond to residential complaints about substandard housing conditions and, if the complaint is substantiated, begin enforcement proceedings. A proactive rental registration and inspection program maintains an up-to-date database of where rental units are, who owns them and who is responsible for the property when the property owner lives out of the area. In addition, those who oversee these programs conduct periodic inspections to ensure structures and units are safe and habitable. Residents can still complain, but complaints are substantially reduced with proactive approaches,” Jennings wrote. “I recently proposed such an approach in the form of a Local Law to the City Council. It requires registration of all rental properties. It requires designation of a managing agent for properties where the owners do not reside or do business in Jefferson County so that problems can be addressed expeditiously. It delineates responsibilities and liability of tenants. It requires triennial inspections, but only for those properties not already inspected by another appropriate entity. It ladders implementation to a) allow property owners and city staff to prepare; b) complete registration first, over a six-month period; and c) complete commencement of proactive inspections over a 25-month period. It changes the city’s complaint-based system to be proactive. Most importantly, this law increases productive communication between the city and property owners to improve public health, safety and welfare, which will positively impact community character, property values and overall quality of life.”

Per state law, the city must inspect all buildings either once a year (restaurants, bars and other businesses) or once every three years (apartment complexes, etc.). When it comes to residential structures, the inspections are limited to building systems and common areas.

Jennings’s plan would involve inspecting individual rental units as well; this would involve single-family homes with rooms for rent as well as multi-unit structures.

On this page, we endorsed Jennings’s approach. But while apartment rental registration was implemented, the inspection aspect of his idea wasn’t.

If the incident at 661 Factory Street Inn & Lodging taught us anything, it’s that discovering code violations as quickly as possible is vital. The city should reconsider Jennings’s idea and put it into effect.

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