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City to fix worst rental dwellings and bill landlords 

click to enlarge Tenants at 967 Chili Avenue rally in 2018 to protest the poor conditions of their building.

PHOTO BY JAKE CLAPP

Tenants at 967 Chili Avenue rally in 2018 to protest the poor conditions of their building.

The city has started a new fund with $200,000 in seed money from a state grant to help Rochester renters repair their dwellings when their landlords fail to make the fix.

The Emergency Abatement Fund is intended to act as a safety net for tenants who live in properties with serious, urgent code violations, such as roof damage, pipe leaks, or electrical issues.

If the heat goes out in a rental property, for example, and the landlord doesn’t fix the problem, the city can dip into the fund and pay to have a contractor make the repairs.

Under the legislation authorizing the fund, the city would then bill the landlord for the work and if the landlord doesn’t pay, the charge will be rolled into their tax bill. Any money the city recoups would be placed back into the fund.

City Council approved the fund at its most recent meeting, where some local housing activists said the money would not go far enough in addressing the needs of tenants.

“Let me be clear, $200,000 is not enough for a single building, let alone the whole city,” Barbara Rivera, of the City-Wide Tenant Union, told Council members.

The money to seed the fund comes from $900,000 the city received through the Cities for Responsible Investment and Strategic Enforcement (RISE) grant program. The state Attorney General’s Office administers the program, which is financed by New York’s settlement with the large banks and investment firms that fueled the subprime mortgage crisis in the late 2000s. The program provides funding for code enforcement and inclusive housing initiatives.

Council directed the money to several city initiatives, but housing activists said a larger portion should have been funneled into the emergency repair fund.

In addition to creating the new fund, Council allocated $300,000 for land management software, $175,000 for refugee resettlement and education, $100,000 for the city’s new Financial Empowerment Center, and $125,000 for a new property manager licensing program, which Council expects to vote on in coming months.

Council members accepted the RISE grant by a vote of 7-1. Council member LaShay Harris was absent and Council member Mary Lupien voted in opposition.

“I’d like to see more money in the (emergency repair) fund, knowing that it’s there and it’s available should it be needed,” Lupien said.

Council member Jackie Ortiz said that details around the new emergency repair fund were still being negotiated and that Council will make sure the tenant union, landlords, and city officials will be able to speak to their concerns.

“We are listening,” Ortiz told the tenant union members in the chambers.

“We have to remember that a year ago, we did not have any funding for this at all, and if more funding is needed, we will find a way to do that,” Ortiz said. “Please stay with us, this is a start, not an end.”

Rochester isn’t the only city with an emergency repair fund.

State Attorney General Letitia James introduced the Safe Housing Act as a member of the New York City Council in 2007. That law requires inspections of 200 residential buildings in the city with the most code violations and mandates that the landlords make repairs. If the landlord fails to fix the problems, the city contracts the work and bills the landlord.

Mayor Lovely Warren echoed Ortiz’s statement and said that the $200,000 seed money was a first step. She also noted that the city has other programs in place to assist with emergency repairs.

The Emergency Assistance Repair Program, for instance, offers emergency boiler, furnace, and water heater repairs to owner-occupied single and two-family homes.

“Rochester is a model in the nation when it comes to code enforcement and how we utilize code enforcement,” Warren said. “We don’t want the attorney general to look at us putting money in a pot and letting it sit there, we want every dollar to be used.”

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at gfanelli@rochester-citynews.com.

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