News10NBC Investigates: Rats, roaches and leaks. Slum properties plague Rochester. Mayor vows improvements

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — If you’re a Flower City renter, you’re in the majority.

More than 60% of Rochesterians rent and a recent study commissioned by the city called The Mechanics of the Monroe County Housing Market found that half of those tenants live in substandard housing. The study also found many slumlords are out-of-town investment firms that pay cash for cheap properties they have no intention of fixing. That’s what I learned during the course of this investigation, an investigation that began with one renter and the broken-down boarding house she calls home.

Zanetta Greene never really feels safe. The back door of her Peck Street boarding house has been broken since an intruder burst through the locked door last summer. Greene lives in fear of invaders with two legs and four.

“You can look down here,” said Greene pointing to the mouse droppings covering the base of a kitchen cabinet. “See the infestation of the mice feces all down here all in there.”

She then showed me the inside of the broken refrigerator where food rotted on half-empty shelves.

When she turned on the kitchen faucet, water sprayed from the base of the faucet as well as the plumbing patched with duct tape beneath the sink. And the situation was the same in the bathroom where the water from leaking pipes has rotted the floor and walls.

So Greene lives life in a 132 square foot room behind a padlocked door.

“I have been in survival mode. That is surviving in there,” she said in tears, pointing to her room. “That’s not living, baby.”

For months, Greene has been begging the city to make repairs, even taking the floor at Rochester City Council meetings.

“I’m not asking for a stainless steel stove or I need to be bourgie. I don’t need Louis Vuitton. I’m asking for decent standards,” Greene said.

But instead, she’s living in a home that now has 41 open code violations. It’s what the Monroe County Housing study calls a slum property. And it’s not the only one, according to the study. The best rental properties are mostly in the suburbs. But in the city, landlords are struggling to maintain about half the rental properties. The other half are owned by problem landlords or slumlords. And most of the slumlords are investment firms often located hundreds of miles away.

Until recently, Greene’s Peck Street boarding house was owned by the nationwide investment firm Ebury Street Capital. Its website says it has offices in five states and D.C.

“This [Ebury] is the worst slumlord in the city of Rochester,” said Ritti Singh, Communications Coordinator of the City-Wide Tenant Union of Rochester.

According to city records, Ebury once owned more than 80 properties with more than 1,300 code violations.

When asked how the city addresses a landlord with that many violations, Dana Miller, Commissioner of Neighborhoods and Business Development answered, “What we’re doing is what we always do. We identify the properties that have violations. We identify the violations as we inspect.”

But Greene says she’s been begging for repairs for the better part of a year.

“If I wasn’t talking to you, nothing still would be done,” Greene said. “The fact that I talked to you, and the fact that I was going to do this interview I got a call. They wanted to come today to start fixing things.”

“It would be unfair to say that nothing was done,” Miller argued. “We were certainly working with the previous owners. We were continuing to hold them accountable. We were continuing to fine them.”

But attorneys and tenant advocates argue a $600 fine means nothing to a multi-million dollar investment company.

“I think our city just needs to start enforcing the law,” Singh said. “Like, the law exists. It says that you have to meet basic standards to rent out a property. The city could sue. They could put the property in receivership, essentially take it away. They could even criminally prosecute the landlord.”

City leaders argue they recently met with Ebury leaders to address ongoing issues. I reached out to Ebury, and John Hanratty, the firm’s managing director, strongly objects to being called a slumlord. He insists it’s unfair to blame Ebury for the condition of the homes writing, “These are all foreclosed and neglected properties for years/decades.”

And while its website advertises available homes for rent, he argued Ebury is not actually in the rental business. It buys tax liens, acquiring houses sight unseen. Rochester, he said, has not been a profitable market. So Ebury sold the bulk of its portfolio, 58 properties, to another out-of-town investor, Chris Genard, based in New Orleans. Those homes have a total of 820 code violations, violations the commissioner says he will encourage the owner and its management company to repair.

“If we can’t get a resolution from either of those then we will correct it and charge them for it,” Miller said.

“With all due respect Commissioner, I understand that that’s the goal,” I said. “But when there are 58 properties and 820 code violations, somewhere something is failing.”

“All code violations are not equal,” Miller replied. “A code violation may be that there’s a screw missing on a stairway railing.”

I talked to Genard by phone and he said he’s committed to improving the properties. He insisted he just needs time.

As for Greene, she says promises are not enough. But throughout her year-long fight, she has refused to give up.

“I dug deep. I held onto my faith because that’s all, that’s all, that’s all I had,” she said tearfully.

Days after I interviewed Greene and the commissioner, the city made extensive repairs to the home and called a press conference to talk about a new housing initiative. Rochester Mayor Malik Evans formed a housing quality task force comprised of city leaders, tenant advocates, housing providers and legal aid. He wants them all to work together to find solutions. I asked the mayor whether the task force can put a dent in the enormity of the slumlord problem.

“They will definitely help make a dent and make recommendations, but we know that Rome wasn’t built overnight,” Evans said. “I don’t think we’re going to solve every single problem. But something like that has to be an ongoing issue.”

“There will be those who say this task force is putting lipstick on a pig,” I said to Elizabeth McGriff of the City-Wide Tenant Union of Rochester. “You say what to that?”

“I’m saying, I don’t know that yet,” McGriff answered.

But she says she’s committed to helping the task force work to improve rental housing in Rochester.

The mayor is giving the task force 90 days to come up with proposals.

As for Greene, she was able to find a much better apartment in a complex for low-income seniors. If your landlord won’t make repairs, you have options. If your landlord refuses to make repairs, you don’t have to live with it. You have rights. 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.