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Welcome to Carney's House

Buffalo's new housing court judge settles in

City Court Judge Patrick M. Carney had to move offices recently. Lucky for him he only had to go across the hall. Carney, a 17-year veteran of City Court, was recently appointed to the position of housing court judge, a post held by Judge Henry Nowak for the last eight years. (It’s been a month now, but his nameplate is still attached to his new bench with Scotch tape.) Housing court, one of the busiest and most chaotic courts in the city, presents new challenges for Carney, who has dealt almost exclusively with standard civil and criminal cases to date. AV sat down with Carney after an afternoon session of court to discuss his new task.

AV: What have you come to learn about the job so far?

Carney: There’s a lot of work around here. There’s a lot of work going on constantly, and it’s not just violations and tracking violations. It’s neighborhood projects. It’s funding projects. It’s trying to get everybody caught up. The biggest issue, the biggest problem, as it is everywhere in life, is money.

AV: What are some of the differences that you have noticed between civil and criminal cases and housing court cases?

Carney: The biggest difference is probably the extended time frame of the cases in housing court. In criminal matters you have a maximum of 90 days, a minimum of 30 days to get rid of them. They don’t linger about. There is no extension except in a very rare case. And the things outside that affect housing court. For example the weather. If somebody hires a contractor to come out and pour concrete on May the 25th. Well, if May the 25th it pours all day, that contractor has other houses to do on the 26th, the 27th, and the 28th. Now you’re back in housing court and work is not done.

AV: In criminal and civil cases there is often a clear-cut way to prove innocence or guilt. Is that the case in housing court?

Carney: In housing court it’s elderly people coming in that are sick, they’re infirm, they’re living on fixed incomes, and they’ve been property owners in the city of Buffalo for 30 or 40 years. The one woman [in court today] had to move out of the house that her and her husband owned. Her husband has dementia. There’s no resolution to that case. Luckily for her it’s just some garbage in the yard, but suppose it was lead-based paint or rat infestation. You have to try to find a solution to it. So what we do around here, mostly, is try to find solutions to the housing issues for people that don’t have the money to fix it. Or they don’t live in these properties and don’t have the money to fix it.

In regular court you are either suing somebody or you got arrested and now you’re in front of me and everybody understands it. And I’m not a problem-solving court. I’m purely reactionary to what you’re there for. In housing court you’re reactionary to the people coming in but then you have to be proactive in trying to find solutions where they wouldn’t normally be.

AV: So are there any cut-and-dry cases in housing court?

Carney: I think the easier cases are landlords, tenants. People that own property for a living, I can force them to make repairs because it’s not a money issue. To me it’s not a money issue. If you’re cited, you fix it.

AV: How does it feel to be coming in behind the highly regarded Judge Nowak?

Carney: Hank was very good at finding solutions to a lot of the problems, and we’re just going to keep trying to do that. We’re going to keep trying to follow up with all of the community liaisons, the community activists, and try to continue to be a proactive court. Hank actually left me two booklets, two pamphlets on ongoing issues. I sat down with him a couple of times and we went through what’s happening, what’s going on. I know most of the councilmen, I know most of the people in the offices, I know most of the building inspectors because I have been a judge for 17 years.

AV: How is dealing with homeowners different from dealing with alleged criminals?

Carney: You’re dealing with people who are trying to do the right thing. A guy who sticks a handgun in someone’s face is not trying to do the right thing. It’s pretty cut-and-dry what you want to do with that individual.

AV: People struggling with keeping their homes up to code can sometimes get emotional. How do you deal with individuals who get upset in the court room, particularly when they are standing in front of the court without representation?

Carney: In criminal court they have attorneys that tell them, “You need to shut up. You need to stop talking.” That way there is no direct contact. I mean the one kid, it’s garbage in his driveway, and I kept trying to say, “We’ll send an inspector out. You’re telling me the garbage isn’t there, we’ll just send an inspector out and they’ll know.” But I had the inspection from the seventh [of January] and it said there was trash there. And he said, “What trash?” What you feel like saying is, “It’s your property, you should know that.” A lawyer would tell him to stop talking.

AV: What is one issue that you don’t look forward to dealing with?

Carney: Out-of-town landlords. Today we had a guy from Ireland. You’ve got a lot of property owners who live in California, in different states. You can’t even find them. I think there are property investors that just buy a ton of property from all over the place and whatever hits, hits, and whatever doesn’t, doesn’t. They’re just not doing their due diligence, and if they buy a piece of property in Buffalo for $6,000 and find out that it’s going to cost them $40,000 to repair it, they’re going to let the $6,000 go. We have $22 million in unpaid fines in housing court. And some of these people, you can’t even find them.

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