October 20, 2021

Landlord’s fight against the city and its consequences

Gerry’s war

Travis Dunn/staff reporter

A United Parcel Service employee delivers a package to 9 Reynolds Ave., a student housing rental property once owned by Gerry Ruggiero and now owned by Armideo Reynolds Avenue LLC.

He can be rude, he can be obnoxious. He’s been known to get in the faces of city officials and harangue them in their offices and in public meetings.

They say you can’t fight city hall. Apparently no one ever told Gerry Ruggiero.

Ruggiero has sued the city seven times, including lawsuits he’s jointly filed with others, as well as a stillactive $12 million federal civil rights lawsuit. He is also the informal adviser to a group of other student housing landlords, three of whom have also recently sued the city.

Why? Who is this guy, and why are he and these other landlords fighting the city in court?

A brief history

Cortland is a college town. Friction between student housing landlords and city officials is to be expected.

But Cortland has been having problems dating back more than a decade that stem from city efforts to curtail the number of students that landlords can legally have in a single dwelling unit.

Here’s the city’s version: In 1978, the city passed a law restricting the number of unrelated occupants of a single dwelling unit to three people. In 2003, in response to a lawsuit, the city passed a new occupancy law that amended the definition of “the functional equivalent of a family.”

This 2003 law, city officials now say, set the date for current enforcement of the maximum unit occupancy. New landlords after this point had to stick to the unrelated three-occupant maximum, but landlords who could establish higher density occupancy before 2003 could apply for a certificate of zoning occupancy and be granted grandfathered status.

The next milestone came about a decade ago, when Mayor Brian Tobin entered city politics as a 4th Ward alderman.

Tobin and a group of aldermen and community leaders associated with the Hill Neighborhood Association and the city’s housing committee pushed for a rental-permitting process, which became law in 2009.

The result was a backlash from a group of landlords who sued the city. Following the decision, both the city and the landlords claimed victory — the city because the rental permit law still remains in effect, and the landlords because the suit forced the city to amend the program in 2012 to allow for third-party inspection and selfcertification, in an attempt to address arguments that the 2009 law allowed unauthorized property searches.

It did not stop there.

A smaller group of landlords, all associated with Ruggiero, filed more lawsuits, hammering the city from a variety of legal angles. Ruggiero, although he is not a lawyer, acts as an unofficial adviser for the group, while representing himself in court in his own cases.

The group has accumulated a series of thick binders they refer to as their “Bible,” which are stuffed full of material, much of it dug up by Ruggiero’s research, that they point to in an attempt to prove their basic grievance — that they are being unfairly targeted for enforcement, while other allegedly favored landlords are given a free pass.

That’s nonsense, said Robert Rhea, the city’s zoning officer. According to Rhea, the landlords complaining about unfairness are people who bought residential properties after the city’s adoption of the 2003 law.

Rhea said these landlords are trying to do something with properties they knew they couldn’t do when they bought them. The rules after 2003 were clear, he said: If a landlord wanted to put more than three tenants in a unit, the landlord could either apply for a certificate of zoning occupancy documenting use by more than three unrelated tenants prior to 2003, or request a variance through the planning commission.

But the second alternative, Rhea said, wouldn’t go anywhere, because the 2003 law fixed the occupancy number at three, and the application would be denied on those grounds. Rhea said the allegedly favored landlords are not favored at all; they were issued certificates because they could prove they had a higher number of occupants before 2003. By contrast, the landlords who are complaining couldn’t.

Head to head

Asked to come up the best examples of unfair zoning enforcement, Ruggiero provided three groups of properties:

  • 46, 48 and 50 Clayton Ave. owned by Paradigm Properties and one, 52 Clayton, owned by Marc Pace, versus 57 and 59 Clayton, with five and seven occupants respectively, owned by Joe Armideo. Paradigm and Pace both have active lawsuits against the city.
  • 16 Owego St., owned by John Barden, versus 29 Tompkins St., consisting of four units and 17 occupants, owned by Chris Calabro. Barden is also suing the city.
  • 9 Reynolds Ave., which had been owned by Ruggiero and Jeff Grodinsky, and was later purchased by Armideo Reynolds Avenue LLC. Ruggiero claims the house’s maximum occupancy allowance changed after purchase by the Armideo-owned company.

Rhea rejected all three comparisons.

In the case of 57 and 59 Clayton Ave., Rhea said Armideo established he had higher occupancy before 2003, while both Pace and Gary Seales, owner of Paradigm Properties, could not.

The other two cases hinge on different issues, Rhea said. Parking was the issue with 16 Owego, and Barden lacked sufficient parking for the number of tenants he wanted. Calabro, on the other hand, had grandfathered status for nearby 29 Tompkins, and his expansion of a paved parking lot followed the footprint of an existing gravel area, he said.

With 9 Reynolds, Ruggiero seems to have a stronger case, because this involves the same property apparently being treated differently under different owners, but the available documents present a confusing picture.

Ruggiero produced documents from late 2015, signed or initialed by Rhea, indicating the property was limited to nine tenants. He also produced a letter dated July 16, 2015, written by Rhea and dated before the other documents, stating that the maximum occupancy of this property is 12 tenants.

Rhea said the documents indicating nine occupants are mistakes based on a form Ruggiero submitted on which it’s unclear whether the number of units says three or four — one number appears to be written on top of the other. That confusion led to mistakes on the other documents.

Rhea also produced inspection forms going further back showing that the property had four units and 12 occupants — documents that would appear to undercut Ruggiero’s claim of unfairness in this case.

Given his best shot to come up with three iron-clad cases of discrimination against certain landlords, Ruggiero presented examples that are not as conclusive as he claims.

Ruggiero does, however, have a litany of other examples, and he and the other landlords continue to claim that discrimination against them is pervasive and systematic.

Grandfathering

Here’s where Ruggiero may stand on firmer ground — the issue of grandfathering, which is the basis the city uses for issuing certificates of zoning occupancy, which the allegedly favored landlords have and which the allegedly persecuted landlords do not.

Both Tobin and Rhea said the grandfather date for landlords to obtain the certificates is 2003.

This is the hinge that all of Ruggiero’s arguments turn on, and it is this issue that these lawsuits have been attempting to force into the courtroom. The question is whether 2003 is the correct grandfather date.

According to Ruggiero, there is no grandfather date. In tracing the history of occupancy restrictions, he pointed to a 1978 law that established the three unrelated occupant maximum, and evidence of the three-occupant maximum restriction dating back to 1972. Prior to that, he argued, zoning was even more restrictive; he cites a 1969 revision of a 1952 zoning law that set unrelated occupancy at two people.

The city, he said, argues that it can grant certificates of zoning occupancy to landlords who can demonstrate higher density occupancy before 2003. But Ruggiero argues this was never legal, and there is no law that allowed three unrelated occupants to live in the same dwelling, which would mean the city cannot grant a CZO for a nonconforming right — because the landowner never had that right in the first place.

If he’s proven correct, that would force all landlords to conform to the three-occupant maximum rule, and the city’s current approach could collapse. This is the main prize these landlords hope to get out of their lawsuits — a ruling that throws out the 2003 grandfather date.

But Tobin and Rhea said Ruggiero’s idea is flat wrong.

“We changed the law,” Tobin said. “We changed the definition of functional family in 2003. When you change the law, the old law is no longer valid.”

Tobin said he is “confident (that) we are on firm legal ground.”

Endgame

Why are Ruggiero and these landlords doing this? What do they want?

They want the city to repeal its occupancy restrictions and enact a new law that restricts occupancy based on square footage.

But that’s never going to happen, not if Tobin can help it.

In 2010, the city came close to caving in to the landlords. Then- Mayor Susan Feiszli said she wanted to reach an accommodation; she was open to the idea of occupancy restrictions based on square footage.

“I wanted to work with the landlords, there was no question about it,” Feiszli said. “Because this is a college town and students need a place to live.”

Tobin launched a challenge against her partly because of her desire to compromise.

“I did not believe then, and I do not believe now, that that was the path for the city,” Tobin said. “So I ran for mayor.”

And he won. He’s been mayor ever since, and he hasn’t given up on this issue.

But Feiszli also predicted at the time that if officials didn’t pursue a compromise with landlords, then the city would be bogged down in lawsuits for years, which is exactly what happened.

“I believed that it was going to become a long and costly battle, and it has become that way unfortunately,” Feiszli said. The rental permit program, she said, “was a disaster.”

Tobin said he does not regret taking a hard line against the landlords. He said switching to square footage-based occupancy restrictions would encourage the conversion of the city’s antiquated housing stock — much of it built prior to the 1950s — into student housing, which he thinks could lead to safety problems.

“Basically it would be open season on all the older homes,” he said.

Limos and lawsuits

The disgruntled landlords once tried another approach to achieve their goals.

In 2011, Ruggiero, Barden, landlord John DelVecchio ran for city council seats. First, all three of them established residency in the city so they could run. Then they led a voter drive that targeted SUNY Cortland students. They managed to get 1,000 new voters registered. Then they sent limos to pick up students to vote on Election Day. All three of them lost.

The political solution did not work out for them. But it’s in court that they’ve had better luck, and it’s in court that these issues will ultimately be decided.