Kawanais Smith puts her arm around Marianna Caleo and pulls her in closer as the woman starts to tear up. "I'm scared," Caleo says. "I don't want to have to move."
Along with fear, there's a lot of frustration in Caleo's voice. The 73-year-old has lived in the apartment building at 447 Thurston Road for about 21 years, but several months ago part of the ceiling in her bathroom collapsed, and she's had other persistent problems — like a backed-up sink and tub — that have affected other apartments in the building. Despite call after call for maintenance, Caleo says, the problems haven't been fixed.
Caleo and Smith, an organizer with the City-Wide Tenant Union, are sitting on a couch in the small living room of Mary Brown's apartment — which itself has had mold growing in the bathroom, water backing up in the bathtub and sink, and a cracking kitchen ceiling. Brown has been an organizer for the tenants at 447 Thurston Road, speaking out about the conditions.
There had been issues at 447 Thurston before, Caleo says, but things have gotten worse in the last two years, since Peter Hungerford took over the building. Today the building has 72 outstanding city code violations, and violations have also been reported at some of the other properties owned by Hungerford and managed by Rochester Asset Management. The property at 967 Chili Avenue has 32 open violations.
Mary Brown, who has been outside her apartment talking with a city inspector, walks back in, visibly exasperated. "I need a cup of coffee," she says, laughing, as she walks into her kitchen, pulls out a jar of instant coffee, and starts talking to Ryan Acuff, a housing rights activist and City-Wide organizer, who was visiting her.
The city inspector herself was getting pissed off at some of the things she found at 447 Thurston, Brown says.
"Did she look at Tracy's place?" Acuff asks.
"Tracy's place is tore up from the floor up," Brown answers.
About 20 minutes later, John Lindsey, another 447 Thurston tenant, squeezes into the living room. Lindsey's bathroom ceiling had collapsed earlier this year as well. It took a while, but it did get fixed — with a lot of mess left behind, he says.
The problems at 447 Thurston Road have been in the news every few weeks since February, due in large part to the noise made by tenants like Brown, Caleo, and Lindsey, with support from the City-Wide Tenant Union. The building first made news last August, when WHEC reported that trash had been piling up behind it for almost a month. On February 20, the building's tenants held a press conference to announce a rent strike, which is still going on.
The City of Rochester is now planning to file suit in City Court against Hungerford.
The city has a few options, says Michael Furlano, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society. It could ask the court to allow it to impose a civil penalty for outstanding violations. It could also ask the court to force Hungerford's company to fix the property, and potentially re-direct rent to a third-party escrow account until repairs are made. Or the city could put the property into receivership, in which case the city or a third party would take control of the building, collect rent from tenants, and get repairs made.
In March, the city threatened to take five of Hungerford's properties into receivership and gave Hungerford an April 1 deadline to make repairs. In mid-April, city officials said that the majority of the outstanding problems had been fixed, but still more violations had been found.
The city is "in the best position to force a landlord to make repairs," Furlano says. "Tenants don't have an easy way to force a landlord to remedy substandard health and safety issues without withholding rent and risking eviction."
The 48-unit apartment building at 447 Thurston Road could be seen as something of a case study for housing rights in Rochester. Peter Hungerford, who lives in Staten Island, bought the building in late June 2016.
The building's problems, tenants and housing rights activists say, illustrate the need for a local housing court. In early February, Rochester Assembly member Harry Bronson introduced a bill to create a court, and a few weeks later State Senator Joe Robach added a corresponding bill in the state Senate, co-sponsored by Senator Rich Funke.
Since February, problems seemed to have grown — or just been uncovered. They include things like broken windows and locks, a poor heating system, infestation, black water coming from sink and tub drains, and holes in floors and walls. One listed violation states: "Sewage falling from above unit plumbing. Can see tissue and fecal matter."
Tenants say that a lot of the fixes that have been made recently have been cosmetic or were made to the outside of the building. "Start working inside the apartments," Brown says, "and then go into the hallways and outside of the buildings. But take care of the inside first."
In early April, renters at 967 Chili Avenue, another Hungerford building, went on their own rent strike. At the time, there were 15 outstanding violations; now there are 32.
CITY Newspaper hasn't been able to reach Hungerford for a comment, but in a statement to Spectrum News earlier this month, Hungerford said: "The City is trying to make some example or villain out of me to push their agenda on creating some sort of Housing Court. The City has completely demonized me, threatened some nonsense lawsuit and receivership, and only because I have fought back and made it crystal clear to them they are not within their legal rights to subject my properties to receivership, are they now approaching me from some new angle via the City Courts."
The statement also charges that the mayor has never called or met Hungerford; that he's getting attention because he's from out of town; that the building on Thurston Road was given a new certificate of occupancy in 2016 and those violations weren't cited; that tenants are "dumping kitty litter down their drains and giving the press pictures of it, so they can avoid paying rent."
The step by the city to file suit against Hungerford is positive, says Ryan Acuff, but that won't be enough. The tenants should be a party to the case so that they can make their own arguments, Acuff says, and he'd like to see the building put into receivership or turned into a co-op building, similar to some in New York City.
"We want tenants to live in safe, dignified conditions, and for tenants to have more control over their buildings and more control over their neighborhoods," Acuff says.
Brown says she's just tired of how long it's taking to get things fixed.
"If they go and arrest a drug dealer, they're not going to say, 'Oh, we'll give you two more weeks to get it right," she says.