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Rochester housing activists push reforms with Tenant Spring

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Unlike San Francisco and New York City, Rochester has a reputation for having housing that's affordable – and it does, for people with a good income. But for many, many Rochesterians, housing isn't affordable at all.

About 65 percent of the city's households are renters, not homeowners. And a recent report from the Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal non-profit research organization, shows the depth of the city's affordable housing problem. Sixty-one percent of Rochester's families of color, and 45 percent of white families, spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. People spending that much of their income on housing are "cost burdened," according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, meaning that they struggle to have enough money left for food, medicine, transportation, and other vital needs.

In addition, many low-income tenants routinely cope with poor heat, inoperative appliances, vermin infestation, mold, and other problems.

Last week, the Rochester Housing Coalition, an organization of tenants and other housing activists, kicked off a 10-week series of events they're calling Tenant Spring. Marching from the Liberty Pole to the Hotel Cadillac – whose purchase and closing last year added to the city's shortage of very low-rent housing – they stopped traffic at intersections to call attention to the need for reforms related to housing and homelessness.

Coalition members include several local and state organizations: the City-Wide Tenant Union, the Rochester Homeless Union, VOCAL-NY, Citizen Action of New York, and others. And its members include people who themselves have experienced eviction and homelessness.

In an interview on Friday, nine Coalition members discussed the need for reform and the plans for the Tenant Spring series. Participating in the interview: Kim Smith of VOCAL-NY; Patrick Braswell, president of the Rochester Homeless Union; Mercedes Phelan of Citizen Action; and Ryan Acuff, Elizabeth McGriff, Mary Brown, Barbara Rivera, Pamela Owens, and Tonya Noel of the City-Wide Tenant Union.

The goal for Tenant Spring, they said, is to raise public awareness about Rochester's housing crisis and to push for state and local legislation. The next event: a town hall at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 24, at Wilson Foundation Academy, 200 Genesee Street. Rochester-area state legislators have been invited, and Rochester residents will discuss their own experience with deteriorated housing, eviction, and homelessness.

Other events being discussed for the Tenant Spring series: a "pastor's roundtable"; a community picnic, where members of the broader public could get information about the housing crisis and donate money or time; a voter registration drive; and a candidates' forum.

The next two months are a key period, on two levels. Locally, all four Rochester district City Council seats will be on the ballot in the June 25 Democratic primary, which in Rochester is the election, essentially. City Council makes decisions on everything from zoning and planning to development subsidies, all of which affect housing issues.

In Albany, now that the budget is behind them, state legislators are turning their attention to a long list of proposals. Among the bills under discussion by lawmakers are several affecting housing for low-income New Yorkers. That issue has been given particular urgency because rent regulations for New York City expire on June 15.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has promised that the Assembly will support stronger tenant protections. But housing activists in Upstate New York say he hasn't gone far enough. In particular, says the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance, a statewide housing advocacy coalition, the legislature needs to adopt legislation that would prohibit evictions for other than good cause. Currently, landlords don't need a reason to require tenants to leave when a lease expires. For tenants with 30-day leases – common for low-income tenants – this poses a particular hardship, compounded by the severe shortage of quality, affordable apartments in Rochester.

The Rochester Housing Coalition is also pushing for legislation that would increase the rent supplement for people on public assistance, permit tenants to take landlords to court over problems as failing to make repairs or provide adequate heat, let Rochester pass its own rent stabilization law, and reduce "economic sanctions." Currently, people on public assistance can face sanctions – including loss of their benefits check – if they miss a day of work or fail to show up for an appointment.

Housing legislation for Upstate New York will be competing for attention, though, with a raft of other bills, including those that would legalize marijuana, give drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants, eliminate cash bail, restrict robocalls, and reform campaign finance.

The Housing Coalition's Tenant Spring events are designed to both build support for housing legislation and to keep the pressure on state legislators, Coalition leaders say. And activists throughout the state will be heading to Albany on May 14 to lobby for reform.

Rochester's

housing crisis

Lack of quality, affordable housing affects thousands of Rochester households every year. Among the statistics compiled by the Rochester Housing Coalition:

• 62 percent of Rochester tenants spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent;

• 48 percent of Rochester's households of color spend 40 percent of their income or more on rent;

• Rochester has a shortage of more than 28,000 units of affordable housing;

• More than 8,500 eviction lawsuits are filed in City Court each year;

• 76 percent of the county's emergency housing placements are due to evictions.