Also written and produced by: Ufon Umanah, Morgan Scott and Adriana Loh
Ryan Shiel is amongst the two named code inspectors who said they’ve entered Skyline Apartments in 2021, one of several properties owned by Troy Green under Green National. Shiel described the conditions he saw as “unfit for human habitation.”
“In multiple areas in all the common area stairways I found urine, blood and feces,” Shiel testified in court records, “The stairways were not only unsanitary, the conditions created a disgusting stench in the stairways and created multiple slip and fall hazards for residents.”
Across 20 civil suits since 2019, six versus Skyline’s holding company, inspectors and residents alike have charged that Green National hasn’t been a good landlord. Between 2017 and June 2021, according to an agreement between Green National and the New York Attorney General, more than three fourths of Green Skyline’s 106 code violations weren’t fixed before their established deadlines.
The Attorney General gave Green National until April 23 to resolve all open code violations with the city of Syracuse. NCC News found that as of May 3, five of the company’s Syracuse properties had a total of 35 open violations yet to be fixed, according to data available through Syracuse’s website. On Thursday, the state effectively increased Green National’s penalty from $50,000 to $300,000 for failing to meet the deadline.
“Green National finally started to make repairs and address some of the hazardous and troubling issues that impacted its tenants,” Letitia James said in a statement. “Green National is not off the hook, and we will continue our oversight until the remaining violations are resolved to ensure tenants have the dignified housing they deserve.”
NCC News reached out to Green National for comment on their property management, but they have not responded to our emails or calls.
In response to a class action lawsuit, the company’s lawyers told tenants on March 30 that they expect to sell Skyline sometime in May. However, their agreement with the Attorney General requires Green National to clear all open code violations before selling the apartment, which means cleaning one of their rooms of infestation, and keeping their surfaces in good condition.
“The city will continue to use every authority it has to ensure the company meets its responsibilities to its residents and our community,” Mayor Ben Walsh said in a statement released by the Attorney General’s office on May 5. NCC News reached out to the mayor’s office for further comment; they declined.
“Negligence and lack of security”
The complaints and the lawsuits paint an image of apartments with broken doors and elevators, rampant mice and roaches, and unchallenged strangers and loiterers. One of those loiterers, Victoria Afet, threatened the lives of residents and eventually imprisoned and murdered Connie Tuori in her own apartment last year. She pled guilty and was sentenced on April 28th to nearly 30 years in prison.
“As much of a predator as Miss Afet was within and outside of the building, that wouldn’t have happened there, if they had proper security,” Tom Tuori, nephew of Connie, said, “But for their negligence, and lack of security, that never would happen.”
When asked, Joseph Maslak, representing three tenants in a class action lawsuit against Green Skyline, said that the city is trying its best to get Green National to follow the law, but their efforts have not been enough.
“The city’s done quite a bit once these issues are brought to the city’s attention,” Maslak said. “In our view, not nearly enough. Those actions have been intermittent at best.”
Advocates like Maxwell professor Gretchen Purser remain concerned that Syracuse might not have the resources to pressure negligent landlords like Green National on their own, to the detriment of tenants throughout the city.
“The city tries to implement different things, but it hasn’t had a structural impact like on the ground,” said Purser, “And so most tenants find themselves with multiple code violations in their housing at this point.”
The city’s code inspectors found the Skyline Apartments “unfit for human habitation” three times under the Greens’ ownership, using their authority under the property conservation code of Syracuse. These declarations have been focused on the mail rooms, elevators, and stairways. The danger though, according to resident and tenant association president Katrina Weston, isn’t limited to the common areas.
“A tenant on the 6th floor smelled a gas leak. It was coming from a vacated apartment, but no one at Skyline would check,” Weston testified for the class action lawsuit. “Eventually it was found out that someone had accessed the apartment and turned all the gas knobs on to leak the gas.
Avoiding a housing crisis
Per the city’s charter, a declaration of uninhabitability requires an inspector to vacate occupants. According to reporting by syracuse.com, the city chose not to declare the actual residences in the building uninhabitable so that tenants would not be required to leave immediately, creating a housing crisis. Instead, the city targeted the common areas, calling them “unfit for human habitation.” Critiquing common areas instead of residences gives residents the flexibility to choose whether to move out. Officials have pledged to help those who want to leave.
According to court records, some residents have chosen to leave. However, at least one has tried to move out but is unable. Joseph V. Donato cannot leave, he said, because he owes rent and the building is declared unfit for occupancy. Donato said in his court record, “I just want to leave this place, but I owe rent during COVID. The relief agencies and DSS won’t pay it because of all the code violations Skyline has. I want to move.”
In a press conference in March 2021, county executive Ryan McMahon said that while condemnation was an option, it would require moving residents out of the building.
“I told the mayor he has my full support whatever direction he goes,” McMahon said. “Condemnation, we need to get the residents out of the building at that point, and again certainly that would then turn over to our economic security team and work to find housing for everybody.”
According to a 2017 report commissioned by the city, only 10% of residences in Syracuse are considered affordable housing. Housing is affordable when less than 30% of income goes to housing costs. When asked whether the city should do more to move residents out, Maslak emphasized that it could be difficult for a city without many habitable units.
“There aren’t a lot of places for people to move who are being evicted or even just wanting to move on their own,” Maslak said. “To take 300+ apartment units and the occupants of those units and try to find them somewhere else to live within the city of Syracuse is just about impossible right now.”
Data collected by the Department of Housing and Urban Development suggests that over 52% of renters in Syracuse have incomplete kitchen facilities, incomplete plumbing facilities, overcrowding, or unaffordable rent. Amongst families making 30% or less than the median income in Syracuse, this number jumps to 76%.
“Lots of tenants find themselves in substandard housing conditions in Syracuse because landlords have very little incentive to upkeep their properties,” said Purser.
Residents like Mary Tillman say that Skyline still has management issues a year after Tuori’s death.
“Right now this building doesn’t have any heat,” Tillman said. “I have hot water issues in the kitchen. It’ll scald you.
Regardless, the city is hopeful that the building will come under new management, as other Green National properties are also sold. Walsh told reporters in January that the best outcome would be for someone new to take over the apartments.
However, residents fear that new management might write the haunted buildings off as a loss.
“My greatest fear is that whoever buys this will just vacate the building,” Tillman said.