Correction: Dryden’s Code Enforcement carries out fire code inspections, not the fire department. This article has been updated to reflect that mistake.
DRYDEN, N.Y.—Six weeks after they were vacated of tenants due to unsafe, precarious living conditions, buildings on West Main Street in Dryden are still sitting idle while former residents have had to scatter far and wide to try to secure housing.
The closing of the properties inspired a protest, organized by the Ithaca Tenants Union, in November on West Main Street in Dryden. ITU has also been working with some of the displaced tenants, running fundraisers to help with mutual aid, food costs, transportation needs, housing expenses for those who have found places, and more, fundraising that continues to this day as the dozen-or-so displaced tenants have struggled to land on their feet.
The buildings now bare remnants of that protest, but little else. From the outside, the buildings look relatively fine—not out of the ordinary for older structures on the main drag in Dryden, at least. But the buildings are largely empty and windows are populated only with signs from the protest calling for the landlords to be held accountable and for the displaced tenants to be provided for financially by the government that displaced them. Wooden slats from an unfinished back porch sits bare behind one of the buildings.
A fire inspection uncovered several concerning conditions in the buildings, cited in a letter dated Oct. 15, 2021. They range from strange but not dangerous, like the need for better premises identification, to more serious: open or exposed wiring, carbon monoxide monitors and smoke detectors missing throughout the building, holes in the walls, broken windows and doors, and more.
Tenants, like Keionzie Clements and her boyfriend Troy Washington, among others, have also complained of insects and cockroach infestation, mentioned but not verified in code enforcement’s document, as well as harmful mold (similarly unmentioned in code enforcement’s document). In an interview with the Ithaca Voice in November, Clements spoke about how concerns she had aired even during her move-in process in August 2020 had never been addressed, including mold issues and burners on her stove she felt were dangerous.
Perhaps most damningly, Clements said her toilet was inoperable for a long time after moving in, forcing her to find creative ways to ensure she and Washington were able to use the bathroom when necessary.
“We kind of made a system, Mirabito opens at 5 a.m. and Speedway stays open all night,” Clements said. “So we made a system, but you don’t know when stuff is going to happen.”
Clements said she begged property ownership and management to address her problems, including making a video in tears of the bathroom during a particularly difficult night, but her concerns were usually dismissed—though her toilet situation was eventually fixed. Clements and Washington established a GoFundMe to try to raise enough money to move out in October.
“I can’t live like this,” she said the video.
The Village Board of Trustees certainly did take the concerns seriously when they were aired publicly after the fire inspection uncovered several concerns, though when presented with a list of questions Village Mayor Mike Murphy did not specify why the village had not reacted to the conditions of the building before 2021. The board called a special emergency meeting for the morning of Oct. 27 regarding emergency measures to take on the four properties at 8-10, 12 and 14 West Main Street and approved their closure, agreeing that the buildings would be posted with 72 hours to vacate notices just before the Thanksgiving holiday on Nov. 19.
Tenants of the building called for a meeting to allow them to publicly appeal the decision and find a different approach that wouldn’t include them having to find entirely new housing, but their attempt failed. Clements said she and ITU members actually worked on parts of the building in the hopes of fixing it to the point of avoiding condemnation, which they succeeded in doing, but were not able to avoid the vacate order. Though the meeting was held on Nov. 9, the stories heard during it only exacerbated the board’s feelings that the building had to be closed promptly. Meeting minutes have not been posted by the village.
“The board heard of even more dangerous conditions from the tenants at the meeting,” Murphy said. “This confirmed that our safety concerns and original notice to vacate order were appropriate. The notice to vacate order was placed at the building the next day.”
In a statement to the Ithaca Voice, Murphy insisted that the decision to deem the buildings unsafe for occupancy was made in the interest of the health and safety of tenants, and “is not a condemnation of the building or an eviction.” While the village’s resolutions allow the Village attorneys to “seek such relief as appropriate for the safety of the tenants,” Murphy’s letter only mentions that the tenants were provided guidance to access resources that could help them as they sought housing on an extraordinarily tight schedule in vacancy-starved Tompkins County.
“Once the Code Enforcement officers notified the Village board of their findings the Board felt it had to take immediate action to protect the safety and lives of the tenants,” he said. “The safety of the occupants is the basis of the action taken to vacate the building until the building passes the NYS fire and safety code regulations. The tenants leaving their apartments and finding housing in the present rental environment is a hardship. The board understands this, but the village board determined that, given the nature and extent of the violations and in part based on the statements of the tenants themselves, the Board had to take this action for the safety of the tenants.”
Linda Bruno, the owner of one of the buildings on West Main Street that was closed, did not answer a request for comment on the situation. Murphy did not answer a question regarding the pitfalls of closing a building in the name of tenant safety, only to then expose those same tenants to the various forms of danger presented by homelessness. This same sentiment was expressed by legal representatives of Legal Assistance of Western New York (LAWNY).
“As the stated reason for the Village Officials’ resolution was tenant safety and not intended to displace tenants, our office expects that Village Officials will proceed to enforce the code against the responsible parties, the landlords, and compel compliance with the Village’s orders to remedy,” wrote Alissa Hull of LAWNY, which was representing the tenants, in a letter on Nov. 10, 2021. “Displacing tenants, even when necessary as a safety measure, does not constitute enforcement of the code, and does not remedy the landlords’ persistent violations against the tenants who live in your village.”
Hull suggests that the Village file a lawsuit against the landlords responsible for the situations, and that LAWNY would sign on to help with such an effort, but at this point no suit seems to have been filed.
Regardless of the exact terminology, the tenants, who were universally low-income renters whose housing situations were already tenuous, were banished from their homes either way—though some squatted in the building for a short time after the notice was posted. Clements and Washington, for one, have continued to collect donations because since the buildings were closed they have had to move several times, remaining essentially transient since mid-November.
“It’s been hard and getting harder,” wrote Washington in the couple’s last update to their GoFundMe, which came on New Year’s Eve. “We keep having to move. Lost a lot of recipes. We looking to raise money everyday to pay for room. Need help immediately no food transportation money for room tonight please if able we need your help.” [sic]