“Plattsburgh was where my dreams came to die.”
After more than three years of living next to a Plattsburgh State fraternity, local resident Jason Sacks’ story surfaced, and a new committee has formed, hoping to change relationships between local residents and college students.
Originally from San Francisco, Sacks and his husband toured the lake district area in October of 2015. When the couple found 94 Court St., they immediately fell in love, buying the house three months later.
“As soon as we walked in, it was like a Julia-Roberts moment,” Sacks said. “My eyes lit up, and my smile was as bright as the sun.”
94 Court St. is a Queen-Anne style Victorian mansion built in 1895. The house was home to the Guibords, a wealthy Plattsburgh family during the mid-1800s, and former New York State Sen. Benjamin Feinberg, whom Feinberg Library is named after. The house also functioned as a funeral home from the mid-1960s until 2001.
The Sacks had previous experience and success on Airbnb, an online marketplace for lodging locations across the country, when they lived in California. With their new home in Plattsburgh, they began another bed-and-breakfast business renting out rooms to guests. They called it Hummingbird Home.
But while business was well, things began to go badly almost immediately.
Sacks said much of his property has been vandalized and holiday decorations stolen since he moved to Plattsburgh.
Flowers for Easter were uprooted from their pots, and Halloween and Christmas inflatables were slashed. A $350 security camera system he installed was ripped out, which he later replaced and upgraded. Sacks said the most recent vandalism to his home was in early April, when a stray beer can broke one of his windows. He estimates the costs of replacements and repairs to be in the thousands over his time running Hummingbird Home.
“It breaks my heart every single time,” Sacks said. “Every time some college kid feels free to destroy [the decorations], I’m so heartbroken I’ll take them all down the next day.”
Sacks said he doesn’t keep the footage from his security cameras showing theft or vandalism, but he watches his property very closely, staying awake from midnight to 4 a.m. every weekend “just to make sure people don’t come up and use my lawn as a toilet.”
“My house has become a battlezone,” Sacks said. “The first words I hear when they pass my house are, ‘F–k Hummingbird Home.’”
On Court Street, there are only two registered fraternity properties, and Sacks said his neighbors, PSUC’s Chi Phi fraternity at 92 Court St., is his biggest problem.
Chi Phi moved into 92 Court St. in 2017.
When Sacks first moved to Plattsburgh, he said he was never informed about the student community in the neighborhood.
“We would never have moved here if we had known that was a fraternity [or] that the police were there so frequently,” Sacks said. “Nobody bothered to tell us.”
According to incident reports filed by the Plattsburgh Police Department, 26 calls were filed as noise violations at 92 Court St. between September 2016 and November 2018. During that time frame, there were five additional reports, referring to a verbal domestic violation, two cases of missing and disorderly persons, one property retrieval report, one trespassing case and one report of illegal dumping.
Of those 26 calls, only four resulted in citations. In those reports, only two calls were made by Sacks in regard to noise, but he believes the students blame him for calling the police every time a party is thrown.
However, news of Sacks’ frustration came to light after one incident at the Chi Phi house.
During the early morning hours of Dec. 17, 2018, Sacks filmed Chi Phi brothers throwing furniture off their second-floor balcony, which is adjacent to the Sacks’ bedroom. Sacks said his neighbors encouraged him to share the footage with the media. Coverage of the incident and his situation was aired on an NBC 5 News broadcast a month later.
“It was not an isolated incident,” Sacks said. “[The noise] happens constantly. It just happened to be that I decided to record it that night.”
Paula Allen, a working photographer in the area, has frequently stayed with Sacks for her work and usually feels safe and secure at Hummingbird Home.
“It’s really become home for me,” Allen said. “Jason is an amazingly kind and generous host, and he makes sure everyone is taken care of.”
But Allen was a guest the night furniture was thrown.
“When I awoke, I thought that Jason’s house was being invaded,” Allen said. “I got terrified that people were smashing in the windows.”
While she doesn’t have a bad connotation of the student community after the incident, Allen said the assumption another escalation could happen is real, aggressive and possibly life-threatening.
“I was frightened,” Allen said. “I come and go, [but] this is his business. This is his home, and it’s deeply affecting him in every way.”
Current Chi Phi President Michael Castro said he became fraternity president the beginning of this semester. He said he was not at 92 Court St. the night of the incident but knows the residents responsible were all put under sanctions in accordance with PSUC’s Interfraternity Council.
“Things got out of hand 100 percent,” Castro said. “I don’t think it was right, and I think all the brothers that were involved learned from it.”
Castro said he wasn’t familiar with Sacks and his situation, nor did he know what their relationship was like before the incident.
“We always try to stick our neck out and try to be neighborly as possible,” Castro said.
Even though Sacks loves Hummingbird Home for its history and architecture, Sacks said PSUC students have killed his spirit.
“My heart has been broken by Plattsburgh,” Sacks said. “I know all types of people. I have never come to hate living anywhere so quickly as I’ve come to hate living in Plattsburgh and the people I’m surrounded by.”
At the same time, Sacks understands the limits of City Police, who don’t have time to investigate noise complaints at the same residences every weekend.
“They don’t need to be babysitting a bunch of drunk frat guys,” Sacks said. “Change is starting to come about, but I’m afraid it’s too late for us.”
That change has come and evolved over the past few months.
On Jan. 3, Sacks and other neighbors had a meeting with Vice President for Student Affairs Bryan Hartman and Chief of University Police Pat Rascoe.
In a statement, Hartman said he and Rascoe listened to their concerns and asked them to keep the college informed on their efforts.
In the NBC 5 News broadcast, Hartman also said students who live off-campus should be treated as Plattsburgh city residents and should be held accountable for breaking laws or city ordinances.
But Sacks said he felt they completely washed their hands of the situation.
“What I want them to understand is that without the university, these kids wouldn’t be here,” Sacks said. “They are the prime reason we are now dealing with this.”
Shortly after, Hartman said he and Rascoe met with city officials and provided them with a Plattsburgh City-College Commission Report from 2007. A few months after receiving this report, a new committee was formed.
The Press Republican reported that City Councilor Jeff Moore pitched the Livable Community Committee to explore community-driven ideas to enhance the city’s livability.
A group of 11 Plattsburgh residents had their first meeting April 24. Due to a three-month term deadline from the Common Council, the group decided to split into three subcommittees: Code Enforcement, Environment Enhancements and City-College Relations.
The 2007 report outlined a number of recommendations to strengthen relations between the college and city communities, including updating the noise ordinance, creating alternative sentencing options and forming a neighborhood association.
However, none of the proposals outlined in the report were created.
“They did a lot of work and came up with a lot of solutions, and unfortunately none of it went into effect,” Rascoe said. “Luckily, we have a road map to go by.”
Rascoe was appointed to the City-College Relations subcommittee as the college’s representative, along with PSUC senior broadcast journalism major and former president of Chi Phi Michael Stetz.
After the Chi Phi furniture incident, Stetz said his involvement with the committee began in one of his classes with Communication Studies Professor and City Councilor Peter Ensel. Stetz wrote a story on the committee for Ensel’s class and interviewed with Moore, who suggested that Stetz apply for a position.
Stetz said the biggest problem for the subcommittee is the fact that college students change every year.
“There are new kids coming in with their own shenanigans,” Stetz said. “Anything that happened this year, the freshmen next year are going to have zero clue unless they’re told about it. There’s going to be a lot of the same mistakes that could be made without any knowledge.”
Rascoe said that within the community, renting to college students has become more lucrative as more single-family homes are converted into student housing, which increases the amount of college students living closer to city residents.
“That’s really the problem,” Rascoe said. “It’s like having a train track behind your house.”
Unless there are violations of the Student Conduct Manual that occur in student housing off-campus, University Police does not have jurisdiction for petty offenses and would not have any knowledge of reports like noise violations unless they contacted City Police. Rascoe said certain areas off-campus produce more complaints than others based on location.
“Noise that happens at the far western end of Brinkerhoff Street will never be complained about,” Rascoe said. “But when you get into those outlying areas, where you have a college house next to a normal person, it’s going to be a complaint-generator.”
The LCC’s second meeting took place Wednesday at 5 p.m. at City Hall, where each subcommittee discussed its ideas for city improvements that they brainstormed over the past two weeks. Problems discussed included trash left on the sidewalks by students who live in apartments, the feral cat population and the unaccountability of student apartment landlords.
On the subject of City-College relations, one solution Rascoe brainstormed was the establishment of a neighborhood watch in the form of peer enforcement, a program where leaders of student organizations, like fraternities and athletics teams, monitor off-campus areas late at night.
Rascoe said this would create new opportunities for community service, as well as put students under a positive light toward residents in the community.
“Being sober on a Friday or Saturday night, seeing firsthand what the neighbors in those neighborhoods [see] and connecting with them will go a long way,” Rascoe said. “I think it would do well for them.”
Stetz also agreed that some form of program would be good for the student body but also understands that some things might still slip through the cracks.
“Kids will be kids and make mistakes, and sometimes you have to learn from it and accept the consequences like [Chi Phi] did,” Stetz said. “No one’s going to be perfect with a lot of that, but there are different things that could help prevent that in the future.”
But until those changes are put in place, Sacks said he still faces harassment from the student community and believes the night life is so commonplace here that it happens without regard for others.
“Even if the frat were gone, even if those guys moved out tomorrow, there are hundreds of people that roam the streets every fine evening, yelling at the top of their lungs, and people shouldn’t have to live amongst that,” Sacks said. “I’m kept awake at night, in spite of medication and sleeping pills, by the shouts of people that should’ve been raised better.”
Sacks said he and his husband were planning on investing more than $100,000 into Hummingbird Home, turning it into a shining example of what Queen-Anne architecture could be in the region. Now, the two are trying to sell and leave Plattsburgh.
Sacks said there was a buyer, but they backed out after obtaining police reports about the fraternity next door.
Castro said Chi Phi will continue to learn from its incident and hopes to improve its presence in the community. While the fraternity has no plans to leave, Castro acknowledged it as a possibility if things escalated again.
“I’m hoping that nothing happens again, and I’m pretty positive that nothing ever will, but [on] the off-chance that 92 [Court St.] just isn’t a good place for us to be, then different steps will have to be taken,” Castro said.
Even though Sacks has seen the positive efforts made by other college students in the community, he said he feels tortured and abused during his three years in Plattsburgh. He doesn’t know what the future holds, but he hopes his story will serve as a wake-up call.
“My heart isn’t here anymore,” Sacks said. “People aren’t going to find security here. They’re not going to want to raise a family here. They’re not going to want to relocate here. I want to send a message that people are not welcome here. We have not been welcome here.”