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Activists: Thurston Road problems show the need for a housing court

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The ceiling in John Lindsey's bathroom collapsed several weeks ago and hasn't yet been repaired. One floor below and on the other side of the 19th Ward apartment building, Mary Brown has thick mold growing in her bathroom, and the water is backing up in her bathtub and sink – a common problem around the building, she says.

Tiles are missing in the bathroom's drop ceiling, and Brown says it's as if an animal is living up there. "If you take this down, there's all kind of junk up there," Brown says.

Along with mold and sewage problems, tenants at 447 Thurston Road have had problems with broken windows and locks, a rat infestation, and electrical problems. Some have had to use their oven to warm their apartment due to lack of heat. Last August, the building was in the news for garbage that had been piling up for weeks.

Problems like those, housing-rights activists say, illustrates the need for a local housing court, and Rochester State Assembly member Harry Bronson has introduce a bill to create one.

On February 20, tenants of the Thurston Road apartment building held a press conference to protest the unaddressed conditions in the building, and to announce a rent strike beginning in March.

The 48-unit apartment building, owned by Peter Hungerford under 447 Thurston Road, LLC, has been cited by the City of Rochester for at least 20 code violations. Tenants say they've lost count of the number of times they've reported problems to their landlord with no results. One reason is that there's only one maintenance worker for multiple buildings owned by Hungerford, they say.

Compounding the problem, rents in the building have been going up — with no clear standard rate, tenants say. Mary Brown says her rent went from $525 to $587.50 a month.

"You raise our rent but then you don't want to fix anything," she said during last week's press conference. "We are all human beings, and we deserve to be treated right."

The 447 Thurston tenants sent a petition with 34 signatures to Hungerford with demands for better living conditions — things as basic as inspection for lead paint; fixing plumbing and electrical issues; replacing the heating and ventilation systems; securing outdoor entrances with proper locks; eradicating roaches, bedbugs, mice, rats, and mold; and rent stabilization. If those conditions weren't improved within 30 days, the petition said, they would be "forced to enforce our rights as tenants through a greater form of collective action with legal assistance."

Access to decent, affordable housing in Rochester has become a problem. "Affordable" is generally considered to mean that no more than 30 percent of a person's income is spent on housing, but that means "affordable rent" is subjective. And there's not enough of that housing for low-income people — leaving a lot of renters, who comprise 68 percent of Rochester residents, stuck in poor housing conditions and at the mercy of their landlords.

The current legal system allows landlords to take tenants to court, but it's hard for tenants to find redress through the system. Bronson's bill, which he introduced earlier this month, would change that.

The bill would establish a housing part of City Court, giving Rochester tenants a stream-lined avenue to take their landlords to court for housing violations. The court would be similar to those in Buffalo and New York City.

The district's administrative judge, State Supreme Court Justice Craig Doran, has said in the past that he'd consider the move to create a housing court. And last November, 25 local officials — including Mayor Lovely Warren and all of City Council — sent a letter with Doran and City Court Judge Teresa Johnson asking them to appoint a judge to a one-year term to handle housing cases.

The essence of the bill, Bronson says, is to create a particular part of the City Court system that would have exclusive jurisdiction on housing matters. There's an additional benefit of having judges and staff develop expertise on tenant and housing law.

The bill would also create an advisory council that would monitor the housing court and give an annual report on its effectiveness as well as on the type of cases going through the system.

"Physical and emotional health is directly connected to housing," Bronson says. "We as a society have a moral obligation to make sure people have adequate housing."

The bill is currently in the Assembly's Judiciary Committee, and Bronson says he expects there will be changes to it, but he and advocates for a housing court envision an easily accessible, centralized location for tenants to fight for their rights.

A housing court is part of three reforms that the City-Wide Tenant Union is pushing for in order to change the balance of power. The other two are enacting of a Good Cause Eviction law, to give basic protections against arbitrary evictions, and expanding rent stabilization laws Upstate to limit how much landlords can raise rents in buildings built before 1974 with six or more units.

"Tenants shouldn't have to live any worse than their landlords," said Kawanais Smith, a Tenant Union organizer.

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