News10NBC Investigates: Mice, leaks, and 49 degrees. One Rochester renter’s nightmare.

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — If you rent your home, you’ve likely had this experience at some point. Something is broken or leaking and your pleas for repairs fall on deaf ears. That’s the case for thousands of Rochesterians, and that takes a very real human toll. That’s the case with Rochester resident, Zanetta Greene.

It was almost one in the morning when I visited her earlier this month at her boarding house located at 47 Peck St. To really understand Greene’s plight, I needed to be there when things go bump in the night. I went come with my go-pro in hand.

Greene moved to Rochester in January of 2020 and quickly snagged a call center job that paid good money. Then COVID hit a month later, she was laid off and landed at the boarding house.

"I’ve lived 60 years, right?” Greene said. “This is the worst stuff, tragic experience in my whole entire life,” she said crying.

This is not the life she planned, relegated to a room in a rundown boarding house.

Using the light of her cell phone as a guide, she showed me the first floor. It was cold, dank and dark. The lights didn’t work. It wasn’t safe to leave her door open, even while making the short walk to the bathroom. I followed her, armed with a thermometer gun, I checked the temperature.

"Oh my gosh!” I exclaimed. “It’s 49 degrees in the bathroom!”

The kitchen was no warmer. So she quickly filled a bucket at the leaking faucet so she can wash dishes in her room. Locked inside her 132 square feet, she does everything, even cook. She made a snack on her George Foreman grill, then washed dishes in her room. She’s even relegated to urinating in a bucket when the toilet doesn’t work. But she refuses to be a prisoner of poverty.

She’s called on city and state leaders a dozen times. In fact, Greene has been fighting to get the home repaired for the better part of a year. The code of occupancy of the six-bedroom home has long expired. And on city records, it’s listed as a duplex, not a boarding house. The city has deemed the house unsafe, citing the previous owner, a real estate investment firm, for 39 code violations, but the owners did not make the mandated repairs, instead, they sold the home in August, as is, for $12,000 to Tenille Conyers and her mother, Shalonda Womack.

"Pretty much we’re trying to get them out so we can work on the home," Conyers told me by phone.

Conyers said she hasn’t collected rent from the tenants. She just wants them out.

“But you were aware there were tenants when you bought the building?” I asked.

“No, not until we actually went there to see the home," Conyers replied.

And she said she didn’t see it until after she owned it, a claim the previous owner strongly refutes. But still, Conyers places blame at the feet of the investment firm that sold her the home. She said its leaders, as well as the city, have long known about the condition of the house and did nothing to fix it.

"These people have been living there since March,” Conyers insisted. “They have been living there since March. All these problems have been present since the day they moved in. Nothing was taken care of prior to us taking over."

And while the city and property owners are busy assigning blame, Greene continues to fight for her right to decent housing, a fight now a year in the making.

The Tenant Union calls the house a slum property, one of the hundreds in Rochester. If your landlord refuses to make repairs, you don’t have to live with it. You have rights. But careful record keeping is absolutely essential.

With some help from Legal Assistance of Western New York, here’s Deanna’s Do List:

  • Always put requests IN WRITING, even if you’ve spoken to the landlord in person. And keep a copy of each written notice.
  • Next, call code enforcement and have the property inspected. Make sure you ask for a copy of the inspector’s list of code violations.
  • You can make the repairs yourself and deduct the cost from your rent. You must notify the landlord in writing FIRST. The costs must be reasonable. Keep all receipts. When you deduct the amount from the rent, send the landlord a copy of all receipts.
  • You can also withhold rent until repairs are made. You must notify your landlord in writing. YOU MUST HAVE EVIDENCE such as: Copies of all letters to the landlord requesting repairs, pictures of the damage, a copy of the inspector’s report, witnesses who can attest to the need for repairs.
  • YOU MUST PUT THE RENT ASIDE. If you go to court for withholding rent, you must be able to show that you’ve put the money aside and haven’t spent it.
  • If you receive rent assistance, ask DSS to withhold its share of the rent. This tends to carry much more weight with a judge.

It’s important to note that often landlords will attempt to evict you for non-payment of rent. It’s important that you have clear evidence that you have requested repairs in writing. If this happens, ask the judge to postpone your case. The judge is required to postpone the case for at least 14 days. This will give you time to gather your evidence and contact a lawyer if necessary.

If you need help, don’t hesitate to reach out to the City-Wide Tenant Union of Rochester. On its website, you can learn more about how to get help, get involved or donate.