Rochester City Council has approved three pieces of legislation that bring changes to the city’s housing policies—particularly code enforcement.
The measures, passed unanimously on May 23, are part of wider efforts by Mayor Malik Evans to boost the city’s rental housing quality. They stem in part from the Housing Quality Task Force he assembled in February 2022. Evans charged the group—composed of government officials, nonprofit representatives, housing providers, and housing advocates—with recommending durable and quickly implementable solutions. Last July, they came up with 16 proposals.
Two of the new laws will create a vacant building registry and spell out a landlord-tenant bill of rights. But the third one, which brings code enforcement changes, has some nuance.
It acts on the HQTF’s call to “target habitually non-compliant landlords and long outstanding (certificate of occupancy) and code violation cases” with stronger penalties and adjudication, the report states. The law primarily does four things: It renames the city’s violation categories, increases the base fines for violations, and gets rid of increased penalties for repeat violations, while enabling city lawyers to pursue penalties against property owners who fail to correct violations. It also introduces a $5,000 fine for improper demolitions.
The mayor has touted the legislation as a beefing-up of code enforcement penalties, but the changes are complicated. By getting rid of the old fine schedule in favor of flat rates, the text of the new system could be construed as decreasing fines for some of the city’s most habitual code violators.
The new flat fines are higher than the previous base rates, but they’re also all lower than the old fines for three or more repeat violations.
So what’s the deal?
Linda Kingsley, the city’s corporation counsel, says this signals a stronger approach to come from the city’s law department.
“We’re not just gonna turn around and write you another ticket if you haven’t dealt with it the first time,” she says. “We’re then gonna move you along and start a city court proceeding against you. So, we don’t want to send the message to people that you can just ignore the first one and then the fine will just be a little higher on the second one.”
This is where another provision of the law kicks in. The legislation empowers the corporation counsel to seek hefty penalties in court if violations go uncorrected. For the first 180 days after the city’s abatement deadline expires without a fix, they can pursue from $0 to $1,000 in fines per day from a property owner and/or a year of prison time. The minimum fine per day rises to $25 for the next 180 days after that, and then the minimum permanently becomes $50 per day thereafter.
The changes, she adds, will also allow the city to circumvent the difficulties of proving to the Municipal Code Violations Bureau that a repeat offense is actually of the same character as a prior one. She says this process drained the time of code inspectors who, instead of keeping up with new inspections, were caught up gathering evidence on these repeats.
In the same vein, the law also drops certificate of occupancy violations from the old “High” category to the new “Health and Safety” violation group. This appears to be treating them as less severe, but Kingsley counters that with three points. She says these kinds of cases have been treated as “Medium” violations in practice anyhow, that this is increasing fines by allowing pursuance in court, and that the new category fits better.
“The ‘Immediate Hazard’ category—or ‘High’ as it used to be called—was really meant to be reserved for things that are (a) life danger,” she says. “Sewage, wires, that kind of thing; no heat. So, we put it where it more appropriately belonged.”
So, while on paper the law strips back some repeat-offender fees, it actually gives the city more leeway to crack down on these offenses in court, where Kingsley says they’ll chase not just fines but “a lot of other things, including attorneys’ fees.”
Still, this does take the fines out of writing and further into the discretion of city officials, a sour change to Liz McGriff, the campaign coordinator for Rochester’s City-Wide Tenant Union.
Last year, the HQTF caught some controversy when McGriff and Stacey Jernigan, the Rochester Homeless Union’s representative to the task force, stepped down to protest a lack of tenant and homeless advocate representation on the board and the alleged dismissal of CWTU- and RHU-endorsed policies.
“In the legislation … it says that you ‘may’ be fined, which, you know, has that lack of consistency,” McGriff says. “You know, the mayor says they’re gonna be really tough on this. But if you’re using language saying that ‘you may be,’ it’s still that leniency where it’s up to a person in the city who may not enforce it as much.”
Kingsley is adamant that the new system will yield more stringent enforcement. She says the city will have to prioritize court proceedings based on the severity of violations and that some cases will have to wait, but that in the meantime code enforcement officers can issue follow-up tickets at the same initial rate if violations aren’t fixed. And, she adds, it will be easier for them to issue follow-up fines because they won’t have to meet the old standards for proving a repeat offense. She believes this new system is a move in the right direction overall.
“I think generally the fines that were imposed were the first-level fines because even if we brought them back at the second, it was hard to prove that it was the second,” Kingsley says. “So again, when you’re laying out how you can get the most bang for your buck with your staff and with your court action, this was the decision that we could make.
“If we see it’s a problem in a year, easy enough, we go back to City Council and change it,” she continues. “That’s not a problem. But, I think, all in all, this represents a massive increase in the ability to take action against landlords.”
McGriff, on the other hand, is hopeful but skeptical.
“To really change my mind that they’re gonna do it, I need to see it happen,” she says.
Justin O’Connor is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and a student at the University of Rochester. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].