Last week, as temperatures in the Rochester area plunged below zero, the area's homeless shelters faced a problem they've had in the past: a problem of demand. When it's too cold to be outside for an extended period, the shelters see a surge of people seeking a place to stay. Staff spend many of those evenings trying to find people beds somewhere in the county.
But the overflow demand at Rochester's homeless shelters is symptomatic of a greater problem, says Ryan Acuff, a housing activist and organizer with the City-Wide Tenant Union, an organization that primarily represents renters in several Rochester low-income apartment complexes.
Monroe County's homeless population rose 18 percent between 2010 and 2017, according to federal Department of Housing and Urban Development data. That's a trend Acuff and other advocates attribute to a web of interrelated issues, some of which deal directly with housing costs: sudden rent increases that drive people out of their apartments, people being pushed out of their apartments when they've done nothing wrong, inadequate public assistance for rent, and others.
And those are just some of the issues at the center of the statewide Housing Justice for All campaign, which the City-Wide Tenant Union is active in. The campaign is the work of a statewide coalition, the Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance, which is focused on getting lawmakers to pass several bills the groups say will address New York's housing "affordability crisis."
Acuff says five items on the Housing Justice for All campaign's agenda are of particular interest to Rochester and Upstate housing activists:
• Expanding the rent-stabilization laws that cover downstate so that they apply to all of New York. The current laws expire this year, and as advocates push for their renewal and reform, they'll also urge legislators to include provisions that let upstate cities, towns, and villages opt in to the rent control laws.
• Requiring landlords to have a good cause, such as failing to pay rent or damaging property, when they evict tenants. Landlords can currently tell month-to-month renters that they have to clear out of their apartments for any reason, as long as they give tenants 30 days' notice. Landlords can also refuse to renew leases as long as they notify tenants 30 days in advance of the leases' end. That creates several problematic situations, Acuff says. Some landlords retaliate this way when tenants complain about conditions or ask for repairs, he says. Other times, someone buys the building and the new landlord pushes tenants out to upgrade the apartments and charge higher rents, he says.
• Giving tenants the right to take landlords to court to compel repairs. Acuff says the idea has wide support in Albany.
• Raising the amount of a state housing assistance grant that the coalition says hasn't kept pace with rents. The group is also backing a bill that's been around for several years that would tie the amount of the grants to rent costs, Acuff says.
• Ending the use of rigid durational sanctions against recipients of public benefits. Under current law, people can be sanctioned and cut off from benefits for a fixed period of time due to any of several infractions, such as missing even a day of work, failing a drug test, or missing an appointment. The benefits should be restored when a person goes back into compliance, Acuff says.
Acuff says he and other housing activists across the state see the potential to make "a major step forward in housing in the state" this year. Democratic control in Albany is one factor, since many of the lawmakers support at least some of the measures. And a few of the new Democratic members ran on housing issues.
Previously, Senate Republican leaders prevented progress on crucial housing affordability issues, Acuff says. And the expiration of the rent control laws, which are a major issue in New York City, adds urgency to at least some of the Housing Justice for All agenda.
Democrats "can't blame the other party anymore," Acuff says.