On the afternoon of May 7, Syracuse mother and former candidate for Syracuse Board of Education Darlene Medley testified before the Onondaga County Legislature for better protection against lead poisoning for Syracuse children. Medley took the podium during the public comment period of the monthly legislative session to share how Syracuse’s lead crisis has personally affected her family since her two youngest children were lead poisoned in the home she rents from MRT Properties, LLC. She also challenged lawmakers to hold landlords accountable, as she felt her landlord had not been.
Later that evening as Medley walked to the grocery store, she noticed MRT Properties’ co-owner Tom Voumard’s white late model Dodge 2500 pickup rounding the corner near her Pond Street residence. As Medley returned home a little while later, Voumard appeared again, she said.
“As soon as my feet hit the driveway, my landlord’s truck pulled in right behind me,” Medley said. “He was so close I could feel the light from his headlights on the back of my legs. He said we needed to have a talk.” Medley quickened her pace and climbed her crumbling front steps as Voumard called her name repeatedly, she said. “I told him ‘No, I don’t think we have anything to talk about.’ Never once did he even knock on the door to apologize for my twins contracting lead from his property. I had nothing to say to him.”
Medley said Voumard turned red, yelling about how she had lied to reporters and to the legislature about her situation. He told her his “friends downtown” informed him about her testimony earlier that afternoon, and then he threatened to evict her, Medley said. “He said he could have me and my family put out in a matter of 1.5 seconds,” Medley said. Voumard had attempted to evict Medley twice before, according to public records, but each time the court ruled in her favor.
According to court documents, Voumard filed to evict 68 times in 2018, in relation to 37 Syracuse properties. “That is an extraordinarily high number of evictions for that number of properties,” said Sally Santangelo, Executive Director of CNY Fair Housing, a non-profit organization working to eliminate housing discrimination in Central and Northern New York.
Shortly after we obtained a list of cases involving Voumard, the New York Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 went into effect, prohibiting further access to eviction records for anyone who’s not a party in a particular case. The same law also increases protections against retaliatory evictions for tenants.
Stories like Medley’s are not new. Syracuse has been having conversations about poor housing conditions, lead poisoning, and landlord accountability for decades. The featured photo in a 1982 front page Syracuse Post-Standard article entitled Profit-Driven Landlords Scar The City, Its Distressed Poor, depict another Syracuse mother named Darlene — Darlene Lawrence — and her then-young son Mike on their own crumbling front porch on Gifford Street. A second photo shows Mike playing under their own falling kitchen ceiling, just as Medley’s children do in her Pond Street home.
While every passing year brings new initiatives, policies, and resources to help solve these issues, housing conditions on the whole remain substandard in Syracuse’s poorest neighborhoods, as they have been for generations. The health and safety of tenants, especially children, continue to be threatened as families bounce from one dilapidated home to the next.
The perils of lead have been known for more than 40 years and yet Syracuse children, disproportionately from our most vulnerable populations, continue to be poisoned and landlords continue to profit from the properties that poison them. Despite a recent tenant-friendly shift in state housing laws, the power relationship between tenants living in extreme poverty and the landlords who collect their rent is wholly out of balance, often leaving tenants without a safety net or resources to fight injustice. Intimidation, real or implied, physical or material, is an effective means of maintaining that power dynamic.
“Tenants must be safe from retribution if they demand habitability, just as landlords must be able to evict problem renters,” said Shadia Tadros, an attorney who has represented both landlords and tenants in Syracuse housing court, in an email. “The court system must be used as a vessel to resolve disputes in a fair and just manner. It cannot and should not be used as a tool to intimidate and coerce people, especially those of lesser means, into subordination. Tenants have the constitutional right of free speech and the moral obligation to speak out about inhumane living conditions, neither of which are diminished by a landlord’s desire to stay under the radar. Threatening and intimidation are forms of harassment and illegal.”
Voumard and his business partner Rob Smith were reached by phone in September. During that call, Voumard denied Medley’s account of the May 7 interaction, stating he came to Medley’s home to “serve her for nonpayment of rent,” after which he left without speaking to her, and without knowledge she had testified before the legislature earlier that day.
Medley’s case record with the Onondaga County Department of Social Services shows her rent was paid in full and on time during the months leading up to the alleged May 7 confrontation. Also, New York State law prohibits landlords from personally serving court papers regarding their own property. It also prohibits landlords from harassing, retaliating against, or seeking to evict tenants solely because they make good faith complaints to a government agency about violations of any health or safety laws.
During a follow-up interview, Voumard contradicted his earlier account, stating he was at the residence on May 7 for an unrelated matter, not to serve Medley. He also admitted a reporter had contacted him about two hours earlier regarding Medley’s testimony before the legislature, which he characterized as “disgusting,” and said he and Medley had indeed exchanged words. Voumard said he remained 60 feet away from Medley during this encounter.
Medley’s saga with lead began in November 2018, when her two youngest children were flagged with elevated blood lead levels during a routine screening by the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) consider blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) concerning, and the Onondaga County Health Department (OCHD) initiates public health actions at that threshold, as required by the state. Medley’s twin sons Devon and Rashad tested at 12 µg/dL and 22 µg/dL, respectively. They were two years old at the time.
“When I found out my babies were poisoned, I felt depressed and stressed,” Medley said. “But most of all, I felt like I failed as a mom, and didn’t protect my babies properly.” When Catholic Charities helped place Medley and her children in the Pond Street home after her previous rental on Rockland Avenue was declared unfit for habitation, she believed her living situation was improving,. However her children’s blood lead levels were normal prior to the move, she said.
The primary cause for lead poisoning in Syracuse is aging housing stock with chipping or peeling lead-based paint. Devon and Rashad’s elevated test result triggered an OCHD environmental risk assessment, also known as a lead inspection, to determine the source of exposure. Inspectors use specialized equipment to test for lead in intact and non-intact paint in the child’s environment.
According to public records maintained by the Syracuse Department of Code Enforcement, the Pond Street property failed a lead inspection on November 20, 2018. On December 17, OCHD identified lead hazards on painted surfaces in 17 areas throughout the interior of the home and one exterior area. A December 20 OCHD letter ordered MRT properties to remediate interior hazards by February 5 and exterior hazards by June 1, according to records obtained from Onondaga County through the Freedom of Information Act request.
On February 19, OCHD posted a summons addressed to MRT Properties on Medley’s front door, charging the landlord with failure to comply with its orders to remediate the lead that was poisoning Medley’s children.
Voumard and Smith say they did everything required by the OCHD and completed the work in a timely manner. They blame the delay on Medley for being unavailable when workers came to fix the problem. Medley said she arranged multiple appointments, only for workers to show up late or not at all, or arrive at other times without notice.
During an interview, Voumard offered to share documentation of repairs as well as his communications with OCHD regarding Medley’s home and another lead-affected property Voumard owns at 204 Slocum Avenue. As of this printing we have not received that documentation, and subsequent calls and emails have not been returned.
As directed by OCHD lead specialists, Medley says she scrubbed every wall in the house from top to bottom with soapy water to reduce lead dust in her home. Eventually, a maintenance worker from MRT Properties painted over the effected areas with encapsulating paint, a process that took about three hours, Medley said.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Renovation, Repair, and Painting (RRP) rule requires that renovations be done by employees certified by the EPA to follow lead-safe work practices. Voumard admitted the maintenance worker who performed repairs on Medley’s home did not have the required training. Voumard and Smith said they were unaware of the EPA RRP rule. However, Medley recalls OCHD lead specialists informing the landlords of this requirement in person, and the December 20 letter stated this rule and provided detailed resources related to the rule.
On March 22, four months after Rashad and Devon tested high for lead, the property passed inspection. But the damage had been done. When Medley spoke to the legislature on May 7, she discussed some of the neurological changes she has observed in her toddlers.
Before the exposure, she said Rashad “would sit down and have a full conversation with you, to the point where you could understand every word that comes out of his mouth. Now, he’s starting to stutter and stammer all over his words. The younger one–” Medley’s voice broke and tears filled her eyes when she began to talk about Devon. “The younger one is becoming very violent,” she said.
Medley said the twins have also lost their appetites. In the past, she always tried to provide nutritious foods as much as possible. But now she finds herself offering them junk food out of desperation, just to get calories into their bodies. “These symptoms are quite consistent with lead intoxication,” said Dr. James Tucker, a primary care physician with 46 years experience practicing family medicine in Syracuse.
Lead is a neurotoxin that can affect nearly every system in the body. There’s no known safe level of exposure, no obvious immediate symptoms, and damage is believed to be irreversible. Children exposed to lead can experience physical and psychological effects such as aggression, hyperactivity, nausea, stomach aches, lethargy, and anemia. Lead poisoning is linked to academic and behavioral problems in school, and children exposed to lead are more likely to need special education and other services and interventions.
Studies show adults who were exposed as children can exhibit decreased brain volume, especially in the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with fine motor and executive functioning skills like awareness, impulse control, verbal reasoning, emotional regulation, ability to pay attention, and mental flexibility. Childhood lead exposure is linked to reduced lifetime earning potential and increased crime and incarceration, according to numerous studies.
Urging Lawmakers to Act
Medley finished her statement to the legislature by urging lawmakers to do more to help families in her position. “This is about simply protecting children,” she said. “And that is not what has happened. My children were not protected. There’s no protection for a tenant. There’s no protection for these babies.”
Medley pointed to statistics that show poor neighborhoods in Syracuse have higher lead poisoning rates than Flint, Michigan did at the height of that city’s water crisis. 10.4 percent of Syracuse children tested high (above 5 µg/dL) for lead in 2018, which is more than triple the national average, and twice that of Flint when its water source was tainted. In census tracts with highly concentrated poverty like Darlene’s, that number can be even higher. In some Syracuse neighborhoods, as many as 20-30 percent of children are testing high for lead, annually. On average, there are 680 children poisoned by lead in Syracuse every year.
“And in all honesty, the only reason we’re not getting coverage is because Flint has it in the water,” Medley said. “But if you look at it, our government is allowing our landlords to poison our children. What’s it going to have to take? Enough is enough.”
At a recent “Lead Town Hall” event hosted by OCHD’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, program coordinator Debra Lewis said the percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels is slowly decreasing in Onondaga County, but acknowledged there’s still work to be done. Lewis said in addition to complaint-driven intervention, the Lead Program is working on targeted efforts in zip codes with the highest incidence of lead poisoning.
Reached by phone for comment, Onondaga County Legislator Miles Bottrill said he found Medley’s May 7 testimony compelling and felt her story helped propel county officials to act. Less than two weeks after Medley addressed the legislature, County Executive Ryan McMahon announced a new policy stopping landlords from collecting public assistance payments when lead contamination is found in one of their properties. During the four months between the time lead was found in Medley’s home and when the property passed OCHD inspection, MRT Properties was paid $4,400 in Section 8 rental subsidy payments. Under the new law, it would not have been able to collect that revenue.
In June, the Onondaga County District Attorney’s office announced criminal charges against seven Syracuse landlords for neglecting to remediate lead contamination in their rental properties.
“When you’re a landlord, you have a moral obligation to ensure your properties are clean and safe,” Bottrill said. “I don’t think any tenant should be threatened or feel threatened, particularly if they’re trying to improve the quality of their living situation, especially if it affects children and safety.”
Bottrill said he saw his share of landlord retaliation when he served on the Syracuse Common Council. “It’s not unusual, but it’s not the norm when it’s taken to that level,” he said, speaking of Medley’s account of the confrontation between her and Voumard. “Darlene has a right to address these issues,” Bottrill said. “People should be able to come to the legislature and speak about an injustice without fear. That’s why we’re there.”
County Halts Blood Lead Testing at WIC Appointments
Misse Ross, a Syracuse activist and Working Families Party candidate running against Bottrill and Democrat Bill Kinne for Onondaga County Legislature, recently took to Facebook Live to criticize OCHD for a recent decision to stop screening children for lead at WIC appointments, a change brought to light by a parent attending a recent lead poisoning film screening and discussion hosted by Legal Services of Central New York, and confirmed by the county via email.
The county cites a trend towards increased testing in the primary care setting, as required by NYS PHL, and decreased clinic-based testing. “The OCHD supports this trend, as our goal is for every child to have a medical home in which comprehensive care can be provided, including lead testing,” the statement said.
Medley believes that if Devon and Rashad had not been tested at WIC, their lead poisoning may never have been discovered. WIC is a crucial point of contact between families living in high-poverty areas, who are more likely to be affected by lead, Ross explained. “We just shot ourselves in both feet by cutting off testing,” she said. “We finally have the funding to remediate these houses and get things going, and now we’ve lost the testing piece. The testing at WIC is vital.”
OCHD said WIC program staff work to identify any barriers to testing for individual families. Staff can then refer families to the Lead Program, which works with parents and healthcare providers to ensure testing. Ross feels the policy change itself indicates a lack of understanding of the barriers many families face, and overcomplicates the process. She believes children will fall through the cracks because families living in extreme poverty are less likely to consistently access comprehensive healthcare. Not all doctors do the required testing, she added. And even if they do, she worries what may be missed by only testing at ages one and two, as required by law. WIC formerly tested children regularly, up to age five.
Newly formed Syracuse Tenants Union hopes to build tenant power
Palmer Harvey is a real estate agent and housing advocate with the Southside sector of Tomorrow’s Neighborhoods Today (TNT). Harvey and others are working to build a union for Syracuse tenants to help address some of the issues she feels are currently not being addressed by the systems in place. “We have a lot of tenants falling through the cracks, and it doesn’t make any sense,” she said.
What stands out most to Harvey about Medley’s case is “how shocking it is that someone, the landlord, property manager, anyone, could not feel something for those kids, and not offer something or even say I’m sorry,” she said. “That tells me you’ve been doing this for quite some time, when you treat somebody like they’re nothing, and all you see is a dollar. [Lead poisoning] is a lifelong problem, it’s not just a tetanus shot. You can afford to [prevent lead poisoning], you just don’t want to.”
Syracuse Tenant Union (STU) is advocating for updates in the city’s rental registry, including required inspections prior to move in. “If you’re running a restaurant, you have food safety come in and inspect,” Harvey said. “Why is it not the same thing?”
“Currently, the rental registry law demands that properties used as rentals are designated as such and undergo a preliminary inspection, although interior inspections are still voluntary,” Tadros explained via email. “Improving the housing stock benefits everyone, tenants and neighbors. If the safety of renters is not reason enough to act, losing money from already strapped homeowners should be cause to care. A blighted or dangerous rental property reduces property values and discourages families from buying properties in the neighborhood. One bad tenant or one bad property owner can accelerate the decline for the entire block and so on.”
The Big Picture
MRT Properties, LLC owns six rental houses in the City of Syracuse, including the four-unit property where Medley lives. Voumard and Smith also co-own two apartment complexes on the city’s Southwest Side, under J-BON, LLC. At the time of this printing, there are roughly 40 additional known properties Voumard owns under a handful of business names and partnerships, including MTH Properties, Cathedral Gardens Properties, Voumard Rental Properties, All Phase Property Management, and Voumard Associates.
The map above shows all known Syracuse rental properties associated with Voumard, including the ones owned jointly by Smith and Voumard. Click on individual house icons to view each address, purchase price, purchase date, estimated number of units, and a Google Street View image of the property.
It’s common for landlords to use the LLC business structure, which shields them from personal liability and can also help them maintain anonymity. “It’s a cozy way to insulate yourself,” said Bottrill. While perfectly legal, this practice can make it challenging to track landlords and get the full picture of their impact on the community.
“It is very difficult to hold someone accountable if you don’t even know who that individual is,” said Santangelo. “This practice can be very problematic, not only for an individual tenant, but for anyone trying to link multiple properties when they’re sheltered under individual LLCs, it can be very challenging.”
Among Voumard’s holdings are his 3,000 square foot waterfront home in a Syracuse suburb and four properties connected with Industrial Color Labs, founded by Voumard’s father and currently managed by his sister. A former location for Industrial Color Labs’ main office in East Syracuse serves as storage for Voumard’s rental business and family boats, he said.
Voumard owns several commercial and residential properties in the suburbs of Phoenix, Salina, Solvay, and Clay, and a total of 37 are rentals in the City of Syracuse, concentrated primarily in the city’s Northside and Westside neighborhoods. He recently expanded to Utica, purchasing a 98,774-square-foot apartment building comprised of 92 rental units at 1506 Whitesboro Street for $950,000.
According to public records obtained from the Onondaga County Real Property Tax Service, the average purchase price of the 23 one and two-family houses Voumard owns is $18,726. His 12 larger four through 10-unit apartment buildings were purchased for an average of $67,592. He also owns two larger complexes, with 12 and 23 units.
Two buildings owned by J-BON are listed for sale on Voumard’s Howard Hanna realtor profile webpage citing a “partnership dispute”. The two landlords have “many, many differences,” according to Smith. The listing for 127 South Avenue states “this makes lots of money”, of the 10-unit building. A 23-unit complex at 679 West Onondaga Street, also owned by J-BON, is listed with a rental revenue breakdown, totaling $15,675 per month, or $188,100 annually, which is more than a third of the purchase price, according to public records. .
Many of Voumard’s properties were purchased in poor condition with outstanding code violations, according to our analysis of records in the Syracuse Department of Code Enforcement public database compared with purchase dates listed in the county property tax system. Codes records show a pattern of serious violations and repeated failed inspections in many of Voumard’s Syracuse rental properties– faulty fire alarms and locks; structural damage like collapsed ceilings, broken windows, and holes in the floor; electrical problems like hanging or flickering fixtures and exposed wires; moisture issues like mold, water running down the walls, and rotted holes under sinks; plumbing defects like broken toilets, sewage leaks, and faulty faucets; HVAC issues like lack of heat or heating ducts falling off the wall; chronic pest issues including mice, rats, roaches, maggots, and bedbugs; and building without a proper permit.
This information was compiled from the Codes public database to provide an overview of the general condition of Voumard’s properties. You will see the original complaint description, the number of violations associated with that complaint, and the dates of failed inspections associated with that complaint. Note most of the complaints listed have been resolved to the satisfaction of the Codes officer. The average number of months between the initial complaint and its resolutions is three, with several stretching out into years, and many popping up again after they are closed. The average number of failed inspections is four, and some have up to 10, 11, or 15 failed inspections.
This data has limitations. When a member of the public calls Codes, a description of his or her complaint is entered into the system. Any inspections, violations, and other actions resulting from that complaint are noted. However specific details are not available in the public view. Therefore, violations associated with a complaint may or may not directly correspond with the original description. For example, a tenant may call Codes because a sidewalk is in disrepair. When Codes inspects, it may discover the sidewalk does not violate code, but observe and cite the landlord for several other issues at the property that are not reflected in the original complaint.
Harvey described her impression of the condition of Medley’s Pond Street home, a four-bedroom $1,100 per month “back house” situated behind a three-family residence. “Her steps are broken,” Harvey said. “The railing is broken. You walk into that place, the ceiling in the kitchen looks like it could come down on somebody. I’m looking around like how is this allowable? This is not satisfactory. You put a new floor down, but you didn’t paint the walls? In an old building? I’m confused. We all know every house built before 1978 has a high chance for lead. So her kids have been poisoned. Whose fault is that?”
According to the Codes public database, there are four open code violations associated with a May 13, 2019 complaint filed on these issues. The “comply by” date was June 4, the property has failed five subsequent inspections, and the case has been referred to the city’s legal department.
Hours before this story was published, Codes officer Todd Clark knocked on Medley’s door to conduct a follow-up inspection, just as she was attempting to dispose of five mice that crawled into a jar of peanut butter, she said. According to Medley, Clark noted the use of substandard materials for repairs and structural failures. “Many of the doors are falling off the hinges,” Medley said. “[Clark] was concerned with the kitchen ceiling and the infestation. He said the only reason he’s not shutting the whole building down is because he knows I have a lot of kids and he doesn’t want to displace us right before the holidays, especially after we already went through it last year when our last house was condemned.” When Medley’s previous rental was declared unfit for habitation, she had to stay in a homeless shelter. Her two teen sons were separated from her because the shelter where she was staying does not allow teenagers.
According to the Codes database, the status of the case associated with Medley’s address was also changed today from “referred to law” to “referred to BAA”, the city’s brand now Bureau of Administrative Adjudication.
“The BAA was created as a follow up to many ordinances passed in the City to address problem properties,” explained Tadros, who is an Administrative Law Judge with the BAA, in an email. “It’s set to efficiently adjudicate properties that have outstanding violations that would otherwise be backlogged in City Court.” That backlog of cases has at times been as high as 700-900 cases, said Santangelo, who feels the BAA has the potential to help move things along and give Code Enforcement more enforcement power.
Why doesn’t she just move?
At the end of Bottril’s interview, having expressed concern for the conditions Medley described and a landlord’s duty to provide safe housing, there was one thing the lawmaker could not wrap his brain around. “After all of this, why is she still living in the same place?” It’s a common question many ask in response to a situation like this.
Medley said after the May 7 confrontation with Voumard in her driveway, she wanted to move but was unable to find any suitable options. “I did look at numerous other apartments,” she said. “But they were all run down. A lot of them were worse than what I’m in now.”
“There are thousands of properties that look like [Darlene’s],” said Harvey of Medley’s Pond Street residence. “Based on the homes that STU has been going to and some the eviction interviews I have [conducted], and what I see everyday driving around the city, most of these rentals [are places] no one should be living in. We have a really big challenge on our hands in Syracuse with enforcing code violations.”
The cost of moving is another barrier for tenants hoping to escape poor housing conditions, Harvey said. People often don’t have the means to pay a new security deposit, rental truck fee, or any of the other expenses associated with moving. “Also, it’s hard to find an apartment that is good without paying a high price for it,” she said. “And great apartments usually have a long waiting list.”
Medley also explained that as bad as her experience has been with Voumard, she’s apprehensive about all the unknowns when entering into a relationship with a new landlord. “Yes, he’s a slumlord,” she said of Voumard. “But I didn’t want to take the chance of moving my family into a worse place, not knowing the landlord, having to establish a whole new relationship. It was just too much.”
Many landlords are reluctant to consider a single black mother of seven children, who receives a Section 8 rental subsidy, and despite the new state law prohibiting them from discriminating against tenants based on income source, they still do it, Medley said.
She shared a screenshot from a prospective landlord who had a house available in Mattydale. “Sorry my brother refuses to take [Section 8,] I didn’t want to waste your time,” they said. After Medley responded by informing the landlord of the anti-discrimination law, the response was “Really fuck off. Text me again I’ll call the police. Better wise up, whoever you are. Lose the number.”
“Onondaga County is the 9th most racially and economically segregated county in the nation,” said activist and candidate for County Legislature Misse Ross. “That is in part due to discrimination in the housing market that has gone on for decades. The landlords that rent substandard housing are preying on a group of individuals who are most likely to be discriminated against and least likely to have the resources needed to move. Even if they do move, the problem remains for the next tenant, and there is no guarantee that the next residence won’t have similar problems, especially considering that we have a shortage of affordable housing locally.”
Tenants often bounce around from one dilapidated rental to the next, Harvey said. Census tracts in Syracuse with the highest incidence of childhood lead poisoning also tend to be the same census tracts with the most transience, the most code violations, the highest rates of concentrated poverty, and the largest black and Hispanic communities in Syracuse. It all takes a toll on individuals like Darlene Medley, and on the community as a whole.
As Medley struggles to navigate at the intersection of all these issues as a mother, she continues to speak up, knowing retaliation is a possibility. In addition to the County Legislature, she has also testified before state and city government officials, and spoken to reporters and activist groups working to fight for better housing in Syracuse.
“I hope my story will help educate the community,” Medley said. “Because a lot of people, especially out in the suburbs, tend to think that us people in the city are just sitting around letting our kids walk up to the walls, lick the paint, eat the chipped paint off the walls, or whatever the case is. This is about educating my community and getting them to understand this is a really really serious problem. Our government is allowing our landlords to poison our children, and it’s just not right. You can’t poison children and just get away with it and think everything is okay. This has a direct effect [on my sons] and it hurts my soul. And this landlord, he just thinks it’s okay, and it’s not okay. Because I’m the one that’s going to suffer these consequences at the end of the day. It’s going to be my babies that are going to suffer these consequences. So this is why I’m doing this. Nothing more, nothing less. I don’t want no money out of this, no award, nothing. I just want to wake the community up and get them to understand this is a real crisis that’s going on in our own back yard.”