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City Court starts housing section 

City of Rochester tenants will soon have a little more leverage against landlords who won’t fix up deteriorating properties.

Officials in the state’s 7th Judicial District, which includes Monroe County, are starting a specialized housing part in Rochester City Court. The new section will allow tenants to bring small claims actions against a landlord and to have a judge hear the case as soon as legally permissible, usually 22 days after a claim is filed, state Supreme Court Justice Craig Doran, the district’s supervising judge, said Tuesday.

click to enlarge Rochester City Court Judge Teresa Johnson said a new housing part of the court is meant to help address the needs of Rochester citizens. Johnson is the supervising judge for Rochester City Court. - PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • Rochester City Court Judge Teresa Johnson said a new housing part of the court is meant to help address the needs of Rochester citizens. Johnson is the supervising judge for Rochester City Court.
The new specialized section of city court is a big step toward broadening how local courts handle housing issues. Housing activists and tenant advocates have called on courts to better serve tenants for several years.

“I think it’s a good recognition by the court that something’s needed,” said Mark Muoio, Legal Aid Society of Rochester’s housing unit program director.

The new court part will be handled by City Court Judge Stephen Miller and it will work closely with the city’s code enforcement office. In order to bring a claim in the court, tenants will have to show that they’ve been in touch with the city code enforcement office, that there is a documented violation, and that their efforts didn’t lead to fixes, Doran said.

“This is a true example of taking a group of people that need help and encouraging them to utilize the help that’s already there in another branch of government, and if that doesn’t work, the court system isn’t just saying, ‘Sorry, there’s nothing we can do to get in line with everybody else,’” Doran said. “The court system is saying to those tenants, ‘We’ll open our doors to you, we will make it easier for you to get in here and try to seek remedies.’”

The housing part officially began Monday, but Eugene Crimi, chief clerk for the city courts, said Tuesday that a case has yet to be filed.

Two years ago, Mayor Lovely Warren contacted Doran to request that the courts do more for city tenants. The new city court part grew out of those conversations.

Warren said she appreciates that the judges are stepping up on issues only it can address. “Quality housing is not something that tenants in our city...should have to fight for,” Warren said.

City Court Judge Teresa Johnson, who is also the supervising judge for the court, said a challenge to establishing the court was working within a proven legal framework while serving tenants in a timely manner, similar to the timelines afforded landlords in landlord-tenant court.

Both sides will “have the full attention and consideration of the court,” Johnson said.

There are tenants in the city who have paid their rent reliably for years, but whose units or buildings have no ventilation, poor heat, or other problems that detract from their comfort and safety, said Ryan Acuff, a housing activist and organizer with the City-Wide Tenant Union.

The new section of Rochester City Court will provide a way for those tenants to get money back — including security deposits and rent payments — from landlords who aren’t keeping their properties in good repair, Acuff said. Essentially, it provides a way for courts to penalize negligent landlords.

“Judge Doran, to his credit, is trying to set up a positive process for tenants,” Acuff said.

The new court section serves as another tool for tenants to hold landlords accountable when need be, and is another step toward broader acceptance of housing as a human right, Acuff said.

Still, the specialized court doesn’t go as far as some advocates would like. In particular, they’d like to see a true housing court, similar to those in New York City and Erie County, that would handle evictions, property code violation cases, and landlord-tenant disputes.

Advocates and housing attorneys have also been exploring ways for City Court judges to directly order landlords to make repairs to their properties. But for now, the new housing part will only consider small claims matters and not those types of direct orders, Doran explained Tuesday.

“I don’t think there’s one policy that can solve all these housing issues,” Acuff said.

City Council member Jackie Ortiz said the city court housing part is “a wonderful interim solution,” but that city officials plan to continue urging state lawmakers to pass legislation creating a housing court in Rochester.

Jeremy Moule is CITY’s news editor. He can be reached at jmoule@rochester-citynews.com.

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