Tenant group won’t endorse task force recommendations

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The Rochester Housing Quality Task Force’s policy scoring spreadsheet indicates that the group deliberated on only one of the City-Wide Tenant Union of Rochester’s 10 proposals. 

The data, obtained by the Rochester Beacon from CWTU, shows that the task force scored down the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, which would “give tenants the first opportunity to purchase their housing if the building owner places the building for sale.” Other proposals included elements of CWTU-endorsed policies, but TOPA was the only union recommendation deliberated on in full.

Rochester Mayor Malik Evans’ task force announced its recommendations early this week, one day short of its 90-day deadline. The report comes three weeks after tenant and homeless advocates withdrew from the board, citing concerns about representation and alleged dismissal of their endorsed policies.

Evans formed the group in February and charged it with recommending long-lasting solutions to improve the city’s housing quality. This week’s announcement indicates that the Evans administration also instructed the task force to make those proposals implementable in the short term.

The task force recommended 16 actions spanning five categories: code enforcement; facilitating responsible ownership through land bank, foreclosures, and building registry; repair and improvement programs; increasing the supply of quality housing; and improving communication and education. 

In a press conference, Evans committed to embracing the policies and highlighted two recommendations in particular.

The first was the establishment of a housing attorney in the city Law Department to drive code enforcement cases and “seek contempt sanctions for landlords and tenants who fail to comply with court-ordered actions,” according to the report. 

The other was the creation of a cross-department team “to target habitually non-compliant landlords and long outstanding C of O and code violation cases (‘worst of the worst’) for additional fines, adjudication, and enforcement.”

City Council will arrange public comment sessions on the recommendations and city housing issues in general, Councilmember Kim Smith says. The Council will engage on-the-ground organizers to drum up participation in the sessions, she adds.

The CWTU does not endorse the recommendations, the union said in a statement released Tuesday. Representatives Stacey Jernigan from the Rochester Homeless Union and Liz McGriff from the CWTU withdrew from the group in protest on June 10. 

The union cited a disproportionate representation of landlords on the task force and the refusal to bring the CWTU’s recommendations to a vote as reasons for the withdrawals. 

“We hoped that the Mayor’s Housing Quality Task Force would create transformative, resident-driven solutions,” the statement says. “But (sadly) the Rochester residents most directly impacted by our crisis–tenants, homeless residents, and low-income homeowners–were not uplifted through the Housing Quality Task Force.

“Two out of three Rochester residents are tenants, but landlords outnumbered tenants on the task force. Most of the recommendations that community groups brought up weren’t even brought to a vote. As a result, the recommendations presented today do not address the root causes of our slumlord system.”

The HQTF report says the task force’s scope was limited to issues most proximate to housing quality that can be impacted through local action and policies with a high return on effort and expenditure. On whether the union’s proposals fell within this purview, CWTU Communications Director Ritti Singh issued this statement:

“All of the CWTU proposals are based on best practices from other cities. The city of Rochester could begin enacting any of the CWTU’s proposals tomorrow–it’s just a matter of prioritizing tenants in our housing policy and putting our people’s needs first.”

HQTF Co-Chair Carol Wheeler touched on the exclusion of policies from the report.

“I do want to recognize and acknowledge that there were recommendations that did not fit our charter, either because they were longer term or outside the purview of City Hall,” she says. 

“These ideas, however, have been all captured, and the entire task force expects that these ideas and the spirit of our work will continue in conversation and action by others in our community locally, regionally, and statewide.”

Evans said Jernigan and McGriff are welcome to rejoin the task force as it reconvenes in August to discuss implementation.

The CWTU will participate “in any city process that uplifts the folks who are most directly impacted by our housing crisis,” Singh says.

“The work continues, because the 90-day task force, as I said, isn’t going to solve all the housing challenges that we have in Rochester,” Evans says. “There’s still so much stuff that has to be considered at the state level, the federal level, and all of those things.”

Details of the HQTF’s scoresheet are below:

Justin O’Connor is a Rochester Beacon intern and a student at the University of Rochester. Jacob Schermerhorn created the data visualization for this article. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

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