Proposed legislation aims to make rules tougher, fines bigger for Rochester slumlords

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. Are you a renter living in substandard housing? You’re not alone.

A city-funded study found half of Flower City renters are as well. The mayor has promised improvement. There is no doubt change is afoot. It won’t please everyone, but there’s no doubt it makes life tougher for slumlords. Last February the mayor formed a housing quality task force that made recommendations. The mayor said his legislative proposals outlined Friday are evidence of a promise kept.

For years Joyce Nelson lived in a home with a hole in the roof the size of a grapefruit. When the upstairs bathroom collapsed from the weight of the water, her landlord did little more than patch it. The mayor is proposing new city legislation to change that.

Mayor Evans: This was done in consultation with counsel about establishing new fines or increasing existing fines for poor property maintenance, code violations and unauthorized demolitions.

This addresses a complaint renters have repeatedly raised. They say the code enforcement fines are so low, slumlords just consider it part of the cost of doing business.

Deanna Dewberry: So when we talk about increasing fines, by how much? What percentage are we seeing?
Linda Kingsley, Rochester Corporation Counsel: The code violations fines in the municipal code enforcement double in each category from what they were before.

And in some cases more than double. The initial penalty for the lowest-level code violation goes from $50 to $100. Health and safety violations go up from $75 to $250. And the initial penalty for immediate hazards goes from $150 to $500, $1000 if not repaired, with stiffer penalties for recalcitrant slumlords who continue to ignore those fines.

While renters applaud increased fines, they believe fines alone are not enough. When I interviewed a panel of renters I asked this.

Deanna Dewberry: How many of you are living in a home without a certificate of occupancy? Four out of 5 said yes.

Landlords renting will now face the stiffest penalty, up to $1,000 a day.

Mayor Evans: I have to do everything I can here within our purview and we believe that this will help. We believe that Rochester will be a model.

The mayor has also asked staff to draft a bill of rights for landlords and renters that will go out annually to each rental property and landlord. As you know if you’ve been following my investigations, renters have been lobbying in Albany for a bill called good cause eviction. It did not make it into the state budget bill, and cities don’t have the legal authority to pass the legislation.

But Mayor Evans believes his proposed legislation goes a long way toward repairing current ills. The City Council still needs to approve the proposals.