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City Council opens public sessions on housing quality 

The Rochester City Council is holding public input sessions on the future of housing policies in the city.

During a session Thursday at the Thomas P. Ryan Recreation Center on Webster Avenue, residents gathered to air their grievances on the state of housing in the city. Theircomments came in response to recommendations made by the Housing Quality Taskforce, a housing policy initiative organized by Mayor Malik Evans.

“In this room, there are no titles, there are just people impacted and interested in creating solutions to the housing crisis, and that is it,” said Councilmember Kim Smith, an organizer of the sessions who also served as a Council liaison to the Taskforce alongside Council President Miguel Melendez.

Topping the list of concerns for attendees were code enforcement, rising home prices, and the overall quality of housing available to renters.

“The majority of tenants are withholding rent because they live under slumlords who are refusing to fix their properties, and the issue is code enforcement doesn’t have our back,” said Dee Richardson, a renter and member of the Rochester City-Wide Tenant Union. “So when we go to court, we don’t have any power.”

The 21-member Housing Quality Taskforce was convened in February and included representatives from banks, landlords, grassroots organizations, and city officials. Its recommendations include increasing the number of code enforcement officers, incentivizing the building of new quality housing, and adding $440,000 to the Emergency Hazard Abatement Program, among many others. The latter program allows the city to pay for needed repairs to properties and then bill the landlord for the costs.

All attendees at the Thursday meeting agreed code enforcement has been lacking in the city. The city budget for the current fiscal year includes the addition of five new code enforcement officers.

“We need to talk about housing impacts community safety,” said Stevie Vargas, an organizer with the Alliance for Quality Education and city renter. “We’re seeing an uptick in violence that’s not just isolated to Rochester, it’s nationwide. How many people are getting involved in crime because they don’t have access to jobs, mental health (services), or housing?”

The taskforce recommendations were largely well-received by attendees, particularly one calling for a system of publicly “scoring” landlords based on complaints and violations. But the process of creating the recommendations was also mired in controversy. In early June, the Tenant Union’s representative on the taskforce, Liz McGriff, and the Homeless Union’s representative, Stacey Jerningan, both resigned over concerns with the process.

The Tenant Union had offered its own list of recommendations, including instituting the “good cause” eviction protections shot down by Council in March and instituting the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, a program which would give tenants first dibs and assistance in purchasing the property when their landlord opted to sell.

“While we began the process with optimism, we cannot in good conscience participate in a task force that does not uplift the experiences and perspectives of tenants, low-income homeowners, and homeless Rochesterians,” a statement from the Tenant Union reads. “Two out of three Rochester residents are tenants, but landlords outnumbered tenants on the task force.”

The meeting Thursday was the first of four meant to reach residents in every Council district. The community feedback is set to be submitted to Council, the taskforce, and the city administration in early September.

The next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 3 at 4:30 p.m. at the Lyell Branch Library on Lyell Avenue.

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or gino@rochester-citynews.com.
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