Rochester Mayor Malik Evans assembled a Housing Quality Task Force in February to inform the city’s housing policy. Late last week, task force representatives from the Rochester City-Wide Tenant Union and Rochester Homeless Union announced their withdrawal from the group in protest.
The decisions by CWTU’s Liz McGriff and Homeless Union representative Stacey Jernigan to step down came amid growing concerns that the task force was unrepresentative of Rochester’s tenant and homeless population, according to a CWTU statement issued Tuesday.
“While we began the process with optimism, we cannot in good conscience participate in a task force that does not uplift the experiences and perspectives of tenants, low-income homeowners, and homeless Rochesterians,” the statement reads.
They claim that landlord interests outnumbered those of tenants on the task force, and that community group recommendations were not being voted on.
Of the 21 members of the task force, 13 represent city government and two are landlords. The Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, Legal Aid Society of Rochester, ESL Federal Credit Union, Housing Council at Pathstone, the CWTU, and Homeless Union also had one representative each, the city’s February announcement stated.
McGriff was the only member representing tenants, despite the fact that 64 percent of housing units in Rochester are renter-occupied, according to the American Community Survey, and that those tenants face a slew of challenges tied to their housing status.
The ACS indicates that 40 percent of the city’s renting households earn no more than $20,000 per year. Eighty-three-percent of those households spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, making them rent-burdened. The same is true for 73 percent of the city’s renting households that make $20,000 to $34,999 annually, which describes 20 percent of renting households overall.
Based on interviews with 30 rental property owners and a review of the city’s property records database, a study published by ACT Rochester in late 2021 also found 50 percent of rental units in Rochester are owned by either “slumlords” or “marginal amateurs” who “almost always” allow their buildings to run down, blame tenants for poor results, and have no intention of catch-up care to their properties, among other traits.
“There are properties in the city of Rochester that have lacked certificates of occupancy for eight years or more,” says Ritti Singh, a CWTU spokesperson. “There’s a tenant that we’ve been speaking to recently who has been living in a building and there’s more than 70 code violations, and it’s just three units so it’s not a huge building. … It’s a really extensive issue that’s impacting our community, and it’s far-ranging. It’s not just about peoples’ housing quality. It impacts their health, their childrens’ ability to do well in school, it impacts public safety, their mental health.”
The CWTU brought to the task force multiple policy recommendations to address these problems and other circumstances faced by tenants. Singh says only one of the union’s 10 core proposals, a modified form of the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, was brought to a vote for the committee’s recommendation.
In March, City Council voted down a good-cause eviction law that would have placed caps on rent hikes and protected tenants from eviction unless certain criteria were met.
Before that vote, city government held a public comment forum that saw 58 percent of participants speak out in favor of the good-cause law and another proposal that would require proof of a certificate of occupancy for all summary proceeding filings, according to the city’s tabulation. Despite this evidence indicating some level of community endorsement and the CWTU’s continued advocacy for these proposals, Singh says neither was brought to a vote by the task force.
“If this is going to be a community process, it has to represent the voices and needs of the community,” Singh says. “The community already endorsed this bill, so it should have been one of the proposals.”
The city released a statement from task force co-chairs Aqua Porter and Carol Wheeler in response to the withdrawals:
The City-Wide Tenant Union and Homeless Union have been important and valued members of the Housing Quality Task Force. Their seats remain available to them.
The Task Force together established a deliberative process to define and prioritize dozens of short-term recommendations, specific to housing quality and actionable by the City of Rochester, for the Mayor’s consideration. This process continues.
Task Force recommendations, to be presented to the Mayor next week, will reflect the input of all participants, a large and diverse group of local subject-matter experts who represent stakeholders including the homeless, tenants, homeowners, and business owners.
In response, Singh says the task force’s fixation on “short-term recommendations” comes as part of a legacy of outside investor-centered housing approaches that fail to address the root causes of the city’s housing issues and uplift citizens.
“If we’re not addressing the root causes of our slumlord system, then we’re not going to see a change,” she says. “So, Mayor Evans wanted us to have long-lasting solutions to the housing crisis coming out of this task force, but the proposals at the table aren’t long-term, deep solutions that address the roots of this crisis. … I think that there’s a potential for the Housing Quality Task Force to be another example in that long history of investor-focused housing policies.”
Housing problems in the city are complex. The ACT Rochester study also notes that the poor state of Rochester’s rental pool in large part may be a function of an income trap in which the city has found itself.
“The median city renter household could afford no more than $650 per month in 2019,” the report reads. “This is an amount of monthly rent that in almost all cases is too low to sustain a privately owned rental unit. It certainly is not sufficient to justify the construction of a new unit.”
In this environment, tenants are often incentivized to rent beyond their means while landlords are incentivized away from maintaining low-rent properties or increasing the availability of units.
This constitutes a market failure affecting both ends of the rental market. Singh says the CWTU is not asking for landlord representatives to be pushed out of task force deliberations entirely.
Rather, the CWTU is asking for the HQTF representative makeup to reflect the city’s population. It wants to see more tenant representatives before giving consideration to the task force co-chairs’ offer for McGriff and Jernigan to reclaim their seats.
“If any city policy or any city body is going to address community issues, then those bodies should be reflective of the community,” she says. “That means that, if we’re going to join a task force about housing and two-thirds of the city residents are tenants, then two-thirds of the membership of the task force should also be tenants. I think that’s the only way for this to be fair and to really meet the needs of the people who live in our community.”
The task force is slated to have its proposals in order by June 24. The mayor’s office and the Rochester Homeless Union did not respond to requests for comment.
Justin O’Connor is a Rochester Beacon intern and a student at the University of Rochester. Photo courtesy of the Rochester City-Wide Tenant Union.