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A renters' rights run-down 

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Rochester is a city of tenants where roughly two-thirds of all residences are rented, not owner-occupied. Those figures mirror the renter-homeowner breakdown in cities across the country, meaning Rochester is hardly an anomaly.

But some recent, high-profile cases of negligent landlords, along with an explosion of new high-end apartment complexes with equally high-end rents, have brought issues of housing and renters rights to the fore.

Activists have been particularly focused on tenants' rights, and they've been working with like-minded advocates from across the state to press lawmakers on passing stronger renter protections. They've had some victories — notably, lawmakers approved an extension of rent control laws to upstate cities, as long as they meet certain criteria and opt in. Rochester is in the early stages of that process.

But there are some important laws on the books — old and new — with which tenants should be familiar. Here is a review of them and an offering of steps tenants can take to protect themselves. 

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Renting an apartment? Check for a certificate of occupancy

The city of Rochester requires landlords to get certificates of occupancy for any rental property, with the exception of two-family residences where the owner lives in one of the units.

Before the city provides a landlord with a C of O, it conducts and inspection of the building and its units to make sure they comply with housing codes. Basically, it's an assurance that the property meets the basic health and safety standards.

Landlords shouldn't be renting out apartments without certificates of occupancy, yet some do.

In January, a new law went into effect prohibiting landlords from collecting rent or evicting tenants if their buildings don't have certificates of occupancy.

In the city, prospective tenants can also check with the appropriate Neighborhood Service Center to check whether a property has a C of O and to find out whether it has any open code violations.

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Photograph everything when you move in

Move-in inspections are a standard part of renting. They help landlords keep track of the apartment's condition before a tenant moves in, but they also provide an opportunity for tenants to document any problems they could be dinged for later.

Fill out any forms or paperwork thoroughly, make sure that the landlord receives a copy, and keep a copy for yourself. Also, take detailed photos or videos of the apartment, paying particular attention to anything that's already damaged, such as a scratched wall or cracked moulding.

The images could prove valuable when it comes time to get your security deposit back, or if the landlord accuses you of causing damage that existed at the time of move-in.

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Your landlord is responsible for repairs

Landlords are obligated under law, and often under leases, to keep their properties in good repair. In particular, they are required to address all health and safety issues, such as broken fire escapes, leaking pipes, and infestations.

If you've reported a problem to your landlord and it remains unaddressed, report it to the city's Code Enforcement Office. The office will try to get the landlord to fix the problem, but if that doesn't happen, the report opens the door for court action.

City Court now has a small claims proceeding for tenants to recoup some rent in these cases. Under another City Court proceeding, a judge could issue a court order directing the landlord to fix outstanding problems.

The city also recently created a new fund to make repairs to rental properties and bill the landlords, if the landlords fail to make the fix.

It's also illegal for landlords to evict tenants as retaliation for requesting repairs or reporting unaddressed problems to authorities.

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Evictions aren't automatic

Landlords can evict tenants for failure to pay rent or for serious violations of their leases. But landlords must follow a process; they can't just put tenants' belongings at the curb and lock them out when they're a week late with the rent.

If a tenant owes rent, a landlord has to provide them notice giving them 14 days to pay. After that, the landlord can initiate eviction proceedings. A new law that took effect in January essentially allows tenants to end eviction proceedings at any time by paying all owed rent.

If the landlord wins the eviction case, the court will set a date by which the tenant must move out. If a law enforcement officer, on behalf of the landlord, serves a tenant with an eviction warrant, the tenant has 14 days to move out.

While eviction proceedings are pending, landlords can't lock tenants out, cut off their utilities, or remove their belongings from the property. If they do, they can face a misdemeanor charge.

Likewise, landlords have to give tenants advance notice if they aren't going to renew leases; the law requires 60 days' notice when there's a one-year lease. State law also requires landlords to give month-to-month tenants 30 days notice that they have to move out.

Additional resources

The Legal Aid Society of Rochester provides legal assistance on several housing issues, including evictions. (585) 232-4090, https://www.lasroc.org/housing-and-consumer-law

Legal Assistance of Western New York also provides legal assistance on housing issues, including eviction prevention and housing discrimination. (585) 325-2520, https://www.lawny.org/topics/3

The Housing Council at PathStone offers tenants guidance on their rights and responsibilities, and also operates a housing hotline at (585) 546-3700 and has an FAQ on its website, https://www.thehousingcouncil.org/faqs 

The New York State Attorney General's Office has articles on various housing topics:  https://ag.ny.gov/consumer-frauds/housing-issues

The city of Rochester's BuildingBlocks website provides information on specific properties: https://www.cityofrochester.gov/buildingblocks/

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