Evans: “The tiger has been released!” Rochester’s mayor says the city can now go after bad landlords with “Saber Tooth Tiger teeth.”

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Do you rent your home? If you live in Rochester, the answer is likely yes. More than 60 percent of Flower City residents rent. And a recent study commissioned by the city found that half of rental properties in Rochester are substandard. That’s why I’ve been investigating this issue for the better part of a year.

Last February, Rochester mayor Malik Evans formed a housing quality task force to make recommendations for improvements. And on Wednesday, he outlined his accomplishments in a progress report.

Last March, I brought you the story about a Rochester resident living in a boarding house. It was one of the substandard properties we exposed during our year-long investigation. We found leaking pipes, homes in floors and a rat infestation.

Tenants I later interviewed in a panel discussion pointed to a lack of code enforcement.

“Whenever I talk to code enforcement, I’m being told that they’re understaffed,” said Rochester renter, Oscar Brewer. So at another press conference in June, I told the mayor that renters I’ve interviewed believe Rochester’s code enforcement department lacks teeth.

“Well it’s going to have teeth now,” said Evans. “Not only is it going to have teeth, it’s going to have saber tooth tiger teeth.” So six months later at Wednesday’s press conference I asked him whether his tiger of code enforcement had been unleashed.

“I think the tiger has been released, and part of it is what we learned… It’s that that code enforcement can’t do it by themselves. They may have had baby teeth, but then they had to graduate to the saber tooth tiger teeth.” The city has hired a new code enforcement trainer and added 15 new inspectors. But the mayor says the programs real teeth comes with its ability to take bad landlords to court. The city of Rochester now has a dedicated housing attorney.

“In the past five months we’ve had more cases taken to city court than we did over the last several years,” said Linda Kingsley, Corporation Counsel of the City of Rochester. The number of cases the new housing attorney has taken to court in five months is 15. That certainly doesn’t seem like many when you consider the fact half of Rochester’s renters are living in substandard housing. But before the hiring of the housing attorney, almost no bad landlords were taken to city court. Instead there was just a slap on the wrist at the municipal court violations bureau.

“The most that could happen would be a small fine, and in many cases, there would be a guilty finding and the fine would be waived,” said Kingsley. So landlords had little motivation to make repairs. But the new housing attorney has taken two landlords with multiple substandard properties to the NY State Supreme Court.

“If I’m a landlord, if I’m a bad actor, I don’t want to spend time in state Supreme Court defending something that I know should have been done anyway,” said Evans. “So those teeth have grown in and they’re sharp as hell.”

Other changes of note include the city’s Buy the Block program which is designed to increase the stock of higher quality housing. Rochester is building new higher quality homes and subsidizing the cost for qualifying homeowners. The first six homes should be complete next month.