Consumer Investigation: Rochester’s eviction crisis. Here’s one renter’s story

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. – The light snow Tuesday morning didn’t stop protesters from coming out to support a man facing eviction on Tuesday morning. They say his eviction speaks to the gravity of Rochester’s housing crisis. I’ve been investigating that crisis for more than a year now. Rochester ranks fourth in the state for the rate of evictions. But tenant advocates say a piece of legislation called Good Cause Eviction is the first step in improving the lives of renters.  It would restrict how much a landlord can raise rent and would not allow a landlord to evict a tenant without cause. The story of Rochester renter Oscar Brewer illustrates the complexity of this problem.

It doesn’t take a trained code inspector to see that Brewer’s rented home needs work. From the hole where the gutter should be, to the broken windows, the apparent electrical issues and the roach infestation.  In fact, there are 14 open code violations

“I did call city code enforcement, and shortly after that they filed for a non-payment eviction,” said Brewer.  “That case was dismissed under the Spiegal Act.”

The Spiegel Act allows a tenant to withhold rent until dangerous code violations are repaired.  Brewer says the state withheld housing assistance as well.  But now Brewer is facing eviction again, and these housing advocates and local politicians held a rally outside the Rochester Hall of Justice to protest in solidarity.

“Landlords have never been in Rochester, but are hiding behind their LLC’s to avoid accountability,” said Rochester city councilmember Kim Smith.

Brewer says his landlord, Tardis Properties, is one of those LLC’s. Tardis Properties LLC owns a number of Rochester rentals, including Brewer’s.  Their lawyer won’t tell me who owns the LLC, but he did tell me that Brewer doesn’t have a lease, and the landlord is within his legal right to evict.

Brewer disagrees. “This is an illegal retaliatory eviction,” he said.

That’s his belief.  But proving that in court would prove to be more difficult.  The judge immediately told plaintiffs there were free lawyers available to help, and one of them represented Brewer.  She recommended a settlement of eviction in a couple of months instead of 14 days.  Brewer begrudgingly agreed.  And it was over in seconds.

“I really think it was inadequate representation, said Brewer. It seems like she was more concerned about getting a deal than getting justice.”

Brewer says he’s been withholding rent to try to force his landlord to make repairs, which is legal under law.  But his lawyer didn’t mention that, nor did she mention that his home has been without a certificate of occupancy for three years.

But the attorney for Tardis told me by phone that the issue is essentially moot.  After all, this time his landlord was not evicting him for non-payment and wants no money from him.  He just wants Brewer out.

“I’m gonna bust my butt to find another place,” Brewer said.

That’s the only option now for Brewer and his young daughter, a tough task in Rochester’s rental market.  They’re now two of many in search of adequate housing.