News10NBC Investigates: Magnets for crime

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Rochester is getting aggressive with owners of what the city calls unsafe homes. The city says vacant, rundown homes are breeding grounds for the drug trade and sex trade. It says they are magnets for crime. The city’s policy is to go after these home owners like they do bar owners who cause problems. But sometimes there’s a story behind an unsafe home.

“What is it they have the biggest problem with? The roof?” I asked Debra Robinson.
“The roof. The porch,” said Robinson. “They said it’s unsafe. And I agree with them.”
Debra Washington took me to her property on Hawley Street. She bought it 50 years ago and lived here until she moved across the street. It went sideways six years ago after she got injured in a head-on car crash and her daughter moved out. Washington still owns it and the taxes are paid. 

“So you’re not some outsider that’s moved in, gobbling up homes. This is your neighborhood,” asked Brean.
“This is my neighborhood,” Washington said.
But on December 8th, 2022 Washington got a letter from the city saying the property is “dangerous” and “unsafe” and “abandoned by the owner.” It was one of 68 letters sent to owners of rundown buildings since Mayor Malik Evans took office.

I searched every filing in New York State Supreme Court. Most of the 68 properties are owned by local people. All but seven are vacant. Most have double digit violations, including 335 Hawley street, the one owned by Washington.

“Pretty quickly it became apparent to both the mayor and I that housing quality was a huge problem,” said Linda Kingsley, the city’s attorney.

The housing work happens in the city attorney’s office including the city’s housing lawyer who was hired in September to deal with these homes. The position was recommended by the mayor’s housing task force.

Brean: “We have a housing problem in Rochester – there’s not enough quality housing. And yet you’re tearing more of the housing down. How do you reconcile that?”
Linda Kingsley: “Right. And the way is the housing we’re tearing down is housing nobody should be living in.”

Brean: “Is it working?”
Kingsley: “It makes a difference for the people who live on the street.”

I found three studies over the last 30 years that found a connection between vacant properties and crime; one in Philadelphia, one in Pittsburgh and one in Cleveland. When they mapped vacancies they found more assaults, more robberies, more drugs and more dead bodies.

“It makes a difference in crime,” Kingsley said. “When you have a vacant structure it’s often an attraction for gangs, it’s an attraction for drug dealers, it’s an attraction for sex trafficking.”
“This got out of hand,” Washington said pointing to her property. “And I totally understand that. But I’m willing to work with them on this.”
Every homeowner sued by the city gets a chance to save the property by going in front of the city’s demolition board. I went to City Hall for the hearings on January 19th. That’s where I met Debra Washington. Of the five properties on the hearing list that day, she was the only owner to show up.

After the hearing, Washington said the board gave her time to prove she can repair it. It’s taken her six years to recover from that car crash. She wants to fix this house, use the rental income for retirement and provide a home for someone who needs it.

“And even though people are telling me ‘Sell it! Sell it! Sell it!’ I have plans for this because I know there are people in the community that are having a difficult time renting,” Washington said. “And I want a place that I can offer for rent to help somebody get started.”

On February 1st, the city demolition board sent Washington its decision. Because she showed up, they’re willing to give her a chance. She has until Tuesday, February 21st to provide the city with a renovation plan and proof of finances to do it.

The city has 77 houses on the demolition list.