City Hall and the House from Hell
The boarded-up house on Arkansas Street stands as a testament to City Hall’s ineptitude in dealing with urban blight.
Not one, but two people — suspected drug users — have died inside the abandoned house since Sept. 26. That followed years of housing code violations and frequent complaints from neighbors about drug use and other quality of life issues.
A maintenance man alerted police when the first man overdosed, but officers didn’t go inside to check on him, according to neighbors and police reports. That didn’t happen until eight days later, when neighbors called police again because of the stench from the victim’s rotting body.
“I was shocked to see the negligence of the police department,” said Wilmer Peralta, who lives within smelling distance of the house.
The property has a long history of problems, which include:
- 107 instances since July 2019 when police were dispatched to the neighborhood because of issues related to the property.
- 63 calls since 2016 to the city’s 311 complaint line, most regarding drug use and housing issues.
- 36 housing code violations cited by city inspectors since 2016, which have resulted in three cases in city Housing Court.
- $7,853 in unpaid summonses issued by the city’s Bureau of Administrative Adjudication between 2013 and 2020.
Peralta said the inaction of city officials makes residents feel like their neighborhood is a forgotten community.
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“The lack of accountability of the police department, the lack of accountability of the city, is frustrating to me,” said Peralta. “How many people need to die for them to start taking action?”
The city’s handling of 149 Arkansas is typical, said Nate Boyd, a community activist who frequently exposes slum housing in Buffalo on Facebook Live.
“It seems that our city officials don’t really understand how deep these problems go, how bad they really are,” he said.
Slow response by police
Buffalo police responded to a call from 149 Arkansas St. on Sept. 13 about a naked, unresponsive man inside the house.
“I interacted with the cops and one of them said, ‘We got called because there is a man asleep but he doesn’t want to come out, so we need to come back and get him later,’ ” Peralta said.
Reports obtained under the state Freedom of Information Law show police returned to the property four times in the ensuing days. But officers did not enter the house to check on the man until Sept. 21 — over a week later — after Peralta called the department’s non-emergency line to report a foul odor emanating from the property.
Peralta said officers told him it could have been a dead rat. He explained the smell was too strong and had been lingering for days. When first responders finally entered the property, they found the decomposing body.
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Police had the house boarded up that evening, but they were back five days later in response to a second individual who died inside the house after breaking in. Both deaths were suspected to be drug overdoses, Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia told WKBW News in September.
“The neighbors are seriously worried about what’s going on here,” Boyd said. “Between the drugs, between the deaths and between all the debris, it’s just outrageous. It’s very unsafe for the citizens.”
Gramaglia, as well as Michael DeGeorge, Mayor Byron Brown’s spokesman who handles the police department’s media requests, ignored over a dozen phone calls and emails from Investigative Post since September seeking comment.
Between July 2019 and October 2022, police were at the address 107 times, according to the police reports. Most visits were listed as directed patrol, meaning officers were dispatched specifically to check on that address. Twenty-eight pertained to incidents including an overdose, narcotics, neighbor troubles and trespassing.
Gramaglia told WKBW News that officers did not know a body was inside the house on Sept. 13. Neighbors say otherwise.
Peralta said the officers got out of the car and yelled to the man, who was on the second floor. Peralta told officers that he believed the man in the house was the same person who had been arrested previously for squatting at the property.
“They said, ‘Yes, we know he’s not supposed to be here.’ So to me, that alluded that they knew who he was, that he was a squatter in the house, but they failed to check as to whether he was breathing or he was still sleeping,” Peralta said.
Property a neighborhood nuisance
The Arkansas Street property has been a nuisance to the neighborhood for years.
“I moved in the neighborhood August 2019, and from the first day we saw the use of drugs, the needles on the sidewalks, people prostituting themselves in these abandoned properties,” Peralta said. “It’s something that you don’t want to see in your neighborhood, obviously.”
Former owner David Dov Fridman bought the house in 2013. Over time, the city issued 19 adjudication summonses for code violations, records show. With late fees for nonpayment, the penalties now total $5,827. Efforts to obtain payment through a collection agency have failed, according to city records.
According to Erie County property records, Williamsville resident Kwayo Ithe Bonkuka acquired the property from Fridman on March 11, 2020. Neighbors have since called in 44 complaints through 311.
Bonkuka has been cited for seven housing code violations on the property since June 2020. Repair work was halted then, when inspectors issued a stop-work order that read in part: “Siding over possible asbestos siding. Permit and asbestos survey required.”
Some repairs have subsequently been made, including biohazard work to remove bodily fluids left by the two corpses, Bonkuka’s attorney, Benjamin Ritter, said in court.
Nevertheless, windows are boarded and debris is scattered around the yard. An inspection report from March 30 described the property as “vacant and blighted in the area and dangerous to the neighbors.”
Meanwhile, Bonkuka owes $2,025 for six unpaid adjudication summonses issued the summer of 2020. Three of the summonses were for accumulation of garbage; the other three were for overgrown grass and weeds. The original fines totaled $675. The city has not turned the matter over to a collections agency, records show.
Property in Housing Court
Niagara District Council Member David Rivera said he has been working with residents to hold Bonkuka accountable.
“We were angry at him before this,” Rivera said. “We were angry at him months ago when we did the Clean Sweep, and we did it purposely because of that house.”
Rivera’s reference is to the city’s Operation Clean Sweep Initiative, which aims to resolve quality-of-life issues by addressing blighted properties. In July, a Clean Sweep crew boarded up doors and windows at 149 Arkansas and filed an order to vacate after a squatter living in the house vandalized a neighbor’s car.
“The city is boarding up his private property. There should be a cost to this owner,” Rivera said.
An inspector wrote the most recent case for Housing Court on May 5, but Judge Patrick Carney — who declined to speak with Investigative Post on the record — didn’t receive the case until Sept. 12. The first court appearance happened two days later.
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Carney has never fined the property’s current owner; he opted instead during an Oct. 12 appearance to give Bonkuka 60 days to repair the property, with the threat of demolition if the work was not completed.
Ritter, Bonkuka’s attorney, said his client is interested in selling 149 Arkansas, as well as another property at 133 Reiman St. that’s also currently in Housing Court. Under Bonkuka’s ownership, the Reiman Street property has been the subject of 28 police visits between January 2020 and May 2021, 77 complaints through 311, and 40 housing code violations, resulting in the issuance of 11 adjudication summonses. City records show those penalties have gone unpaid.
Bonkuka owns two other houses at 456 Davey St. and 461 South Ogden St. that have multiple outstanding code violations. Both are for sale; neither is in Housing Court. Three other properties he owns have single outstanding code violations, city records show.
At a November court appearance, Carney told Rivera the city needs to come up with solutions to address blighted properties. Rivera says the court could also be doing more.
“The city has its part in it, but I think the courts also have a great part to deal with it as well, because they’re the arbiters,” Rivera said. “It’s up to the judge to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to fine you,’ or ‘We’re going to issue an order for demolition.’”
The next court appearance for both the Arkansas and Reiman properties will be held Jan. 19.
“I think there is a lot of red tape that the city has with landlords who do not take care of the properties,” Peralta said. “I’m not a councilman, I’m not a part of the city board, so I think it’s up to our representatives to amend whatever statute it is that protects landlords.”
Peralta said Housing Court could bear more responsibility, as well.
“It seems like it’s impossible to get the courts or to get judges to put an end to these abandoned homes in the city.”