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Activists demand protections for tenants as eviction moratoriums are challenged

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Local housing activists are calling on Rochester officials to enact stronger tenant protections following a Supreme Court decision that blocked part of New York’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium. A recently-renewed federal moratorium could also face legal challenges.

Speaking to City Council Tuesday, organizers with the Rochester City-Wide Tenant Union told Councilmembers that they fear an impending housing crisis without local action to, among other things, protect tenants from some evictions and sharp rent increases.

“The urgency has gone up, and what we need to do is level the playing field for tenants in Rochester,” said tenant union member Lisle Coleman.

The tenant union is calling on City Council to pass five pieces of legislation in September to protect tenants under the banner of “Stabilize Rochester.” So-called “good cause eviction” laws, which activists have pushed for over several years, are perhaps the most pressing part of their agenda. Good cause eviction laws provide tenants with tenants in good standing the right to renew a lease and prohibits landlords from evicting or forcing out tenants without a specific reason.

“Housing is the foundation for safer, healthy families and communities,” said Clianda Florence Yarde, who was evicted from her home on Glasgow Street in December. “...You not only have to stand by it when it’s popular, but you also have to speak about these things on a regular basis.”

Last week, U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich upheld a nationwide eviction moratorium put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is set to expire Oct. 3. But challenges from realtor associations in Alabama and Georgia are set to bring the case back to the Supreme Court in coming days. The CDC issued a new order on Aug. 3 that applies to areas that are considered to have substantial or high transmission — Monroe County falls into the high transmission category. The county reported 111 new cases Tuesday.

In a narrowly split 5-4 decision this past June, the Supreme Court upheld a previous eviction moratorium put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But in a statement of concurrence with the decision, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was part of the majority, wrote that he felt the CDC exceeded its existing authority by issuing an eviction moratorium.

Last week, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to New York’s statewide eviction moratorium when it struck down a provision allowing tenants to submit a form showing proof of economic hardship to prevent an eviction. Now they must provide evidence of that hardship in court.

Last month, Albany became the first city in New York to pass a good-cause eviction law.

“Our poor tenants deserve better than what they are getting,” said Sister Grace Miller of House of Mercy. “You city leaders have an obligation to take care of the poor of our city.”

The Stabilize Rochester platform also calls for laws that would prevent landlords from evicting tenants if the landlord doesn’t have a certificate of occupancy for the unit, allow the city to implement rent stabilization by opting into the state’s Emergency Tenant Protection Act, remove the city from a state initiative which provides tax breaks for developers who convert non-residential properties into mixed use commercial and residential spaces, and enact a permanent “right to counsel” program for tenants facing eviction.

In the spring, Monroe County and the city launched a right-to-counsel program for tenants facing eviction. No law guarantees a defendant a right to an attorney in civil matters such as eviction proceedings. The volunteer legal services organization JustCause administers the initiative.

“We’re really at the precipice of an unprecedented crisis at this point here in Rochester,” said tenant union organizer Ryan Acuff. “And nobody is going to be coming in to save us.”

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or gino@rochester-citynews.com.

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