Binghamton has a housing crisis. We know this. What many don’t know, however, is how they would function without running water in their home for nearly 50 days straight — a question that a family of nine in Binghamton, NY has recently been forced to deal with at the hands of their notoriously corrupt landlord, Douglas Ritter.
The Garcia family, made up of seven children and two adults, had their water shut off by landlord Douglas Ritter on Feb. 4 following a dispute over leaking water between their family, Ritter and the tenant living below them. The Stakeholders of Broome County, made up of several Binghamton resident organizers, were the first to report on this issue on March 13, drawing community outrage. As a result of Ritter’s actions, the Garcias have been forced to live off of water deliveries from neighbors, using gallons or individual water bottles in order to cook or drink and walking to their relative’s house to shower.
As Pipe Dream’s news coverage points out, the Garcia family’s condition is not simply a matter of flipping a switch back on to restore their water. Whole sections of the building’s plumbing system were cut by Ritter, who also placed a padlock on the door that leads to the water pipes. Shutting off water in a punitive manner is a misdemeanor in itself, but the lengths Ritter went to in order to deny utilities to the Garcias only strengthens the warrant for his arrest, issued on Feb. 9.
Even if this were as simple as turning a valve, Ritter refused to turn water back on despite an order from the Binghamton Code Enforcement, attempting to unlawfully force their eviction. Beyond that, Ritter also had the audacity to call Child Protective Services on the Garcias for not having water in their home — as if the parents were somehow at fault for his own decision to deny seven children access to water. If anyone is negligent here, it is Ritter, who has been reported for hundreds of code violations over his 50 years as a deplorable landlord in Broome County. These violations range from blocked exits, insufficient structural support or roof leakage to actual bat feces in buildings.
However, leaving a home deemed uninhabitable is not easy. The Garcias cannot just pick up and move in a city like Binghamton, where an already dreadful housing crisis has been made even worse after the COVID-19 pandemic. Affordable housing is few and far between in Broome County, and Binghamton University has much to do with it. Community members have organized for years to raise awareness and speak out in regard to the impacts of our campus community on the larger, off-campus Binghamton area. While students may not consciously or maliciously contribute to housing insecurity, almost all of us here at BU contribute nonetheless.
To start, students living off campus monopolize massive amounts of housing in Binghamton, minimizing an already minute pool of affordable housing options for Binghamton residents. Not only do students take up these large spaces, but they also tend to treat their residences with less care than a long-term homeowner would. While many BU students are quick to complain about Binghamton’s lackluster appearance, we have directly contributed to its unseemly exterior by neglecting and destroying rental properties for decades. Consequently, given our campus presence, landlords begin catering to BU students, maximizing payouts by charging per room rather than the residence as a whole. Not only do these landlords exclude Binghamton natives as a whole, but they also exploit young, naive students with upcharges and vague lease agreements to excuse themselves from proper upkeep.
By taking advantage of a young customer base, Broome County landlords exacerbate poor housing conditions until they become increasingly intolerable. Even the apartment complexes popular among students are just as greedy, with places like U Club Binghamton or Twin River Commons marketing themselves as luxury housing while making abrupt changes to lease agreements and maintaining the bare minimum of clean, habitable living to avoid a lawsuit. While students unquestionably contribute to gentrification in Binghamton, they do so while simultaneously being victims of the same crisis — they are simply one small step above those residents who cannot leave the city behind after four years of residence that their parents may be paying for.
Though millions of dollars have been poured into housing projects and rescue plans to increase affordability, a problem as big as gentrification is not this simple. While these initiatives are a good step forward, if throwing money at a problem could solve issues, it would have been solved decades ago. Meanwhile, BU continues to purchase or build property in Johnson City, including the Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences building, which opened last March, the development of two new campus-affiliated apartment complexes and plans for an upcoming “greenspace” park. While a park — especially one marketed as a greenspace — may sound appealing, no one asked for it. Glamorizing small bubbles of Downtown Binghamton does not mean we can sweep the outskirts under the rug. Current problems will only persist with BU’s consistent gentrification, no matter how hard they try to convince us otherwise.
Broome County is well acquainted with slumlords. Doug Ritter is just the latest to receive community attention. The Garcia family are the victims of a heartless crime, and Ritter should without a doubt face arrest for his consistent ignorance and cruelty. However, let this one case speak for the probable hundreds more throughout Binghamton that will not be covered in the news.
As the Stakeholders of Broome County point out, the housing crisis extends far past Ritter and his individualized crimes. This crisis is also the fault of students, BU administration, Mayor Rich David, Broome County, the New York State Assembly, the New York State Senate and, of course, the group of landlords who capitalize on young, poor communities. Every single one of us plays a vital role in perpetuating a vicious cycle that turns a blind eye to the struggles of impoverished residents at the mention of “economic growth” funded by well-off, temporary student residents.
The state Senate needs to pass the Good Cause Eviction bill to prevent a case like that of the Garcias from happening again. This bill would provide basic tenant protections that are long overdue, such as setting rent increase limits, allowing for more automatic lease renewals and prohibiting no-fault evictions that forcibly remove families who have made no major violations to their lease agreement. Good cause eviction laws are the bare minimum, and with similar laws already passed in several major New York cities, including a college town like Albany, Binghamton should undoubtedly follow suit.
Tenants should be allowed to request whatever accommodations, repairs or information necessary regarding the homes they pay to live in. Tenants are more than mere cash cows who exist to fill the pockets of greedy, uncaring landlords. We are all people who deserve safe, affordable, comfortable housing no matter our reason for coming to Binghamton. Every major player in Binghamton needs to act now to prevent further gentrification and displacement of the families who were here first.