Problems at the Pines

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The Pines of Perinton offers 508 apartments to residents with limited incomes on a 43-acre Perinton campus. (Photo: Paul Ericson)

As the Pines of Perinton undergoes a $65 million renovation, some advocates for the low-income apartment complex’s tenants have difficulty trusting its developer, WinnCompanies. While there is much work to be done in gaining that trust, Winn officials say they are open to listening to tenants’ concerns and bridging the divide.

Slated for completion in fall 2025, extensive renovation at the Pines began last April. Built in the 1970s, the complex has weathered a fire and code violations, among other challenges. Its tenants have endured unsuitable living conditions, prompting them to band together to form a tenants’ association, align with advocates to bring attention to their troubles.

“Right now, I see no accountability on the part of the company,” Tiffany Porter says.

Porter once lived in the Perinton apartment complex, still has friends and family there, and is one of four local housing activists who have been pushing WinnCompanies to better meet its tenants’ needs.

WinnCompanies develops and manages properties in 24 states, the District of Columbia and as far away as Puerto Rico. In addition to the Pines of Perinton, the Boston-based firm owns two other local properties: Sibley Square, a 280-unit mixed-use property in downtown Rochester, and Cedars of Chili, which features 380 units of low-income and affordable suburban housing.

The Pines

The Pines of Perinton offers 508 apartments to residents with limited incomes on a 43-acre Perinton campus. The construction of the complex was a kind of landmark—it was one of the first affordable family housing developments built in a suburb by the New York State Urban Development Corporation.

Residents of the complex pay reduced rents by enrolling in one of two federal programs: the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program and the Housing Choice Voucher (formerly the Section 8) program.

Both programs enable residents who have appropriately low incomes to qualify to pay reduced rents. For example, to be eligible to enroll in the Housing Choice Voucher program, an applicant must annually earn no more than 50 percent of the adjusted median income for Monroe County. That comes to $33,962 for one person. Eligible residents of the Pines pay only 30 percent of their monthly rent—the program picks up the rest.

Crews began building the Pines in 1972 and finished in 1976, so by the time WinnCompanies bought the complex from Perinton-Fairport Houses Inc. in late 2019, it was beginning to show its age.

“This property sat for close to 50 years without the needed investment until WinnCompanies came along,” says Ed Cafasso, a spokesperson for the Pines.

While it is difficult to determine how that lack of investment has affected the complex, tenants have complained about pipes and windows that leak, moldy walls and ceilings, rodent infestations and other problems. Responding to their concerns, Perinton’s Buildings and Codes Department discovered 26 violations of the New York State Property Maintenance Code in six apartments in 2022. Nine more were discovered in other apartments a year later.

The Pines suffered more obvious damage to its infrastructure on Jan. 25, 2022, when an early-morning fire ripped through part of the property. The blaze destroyed 19 apartments and displaced 65 adults and children. Investigators from the Monroe County Fire Bureau have been unable to determine the cause of the blaze.

Coming together

Jen Pilato’s apartment was one of those cited for code violations. She and her three children moved into the Pines in February 2019.

“The second day that we lived here, my kitchen ceiling fell down,” Pilato says.

Water leaking from the second-floor bathroom of Pilato’s Balsam Lane apartment had soaked through and softened the ceiling drywall, causing a collapse. Though the apartment complex replaced the ceiling, she and her kids continued to endure damaging water leaks. In 2022, maintenance workers had to tear down parts of one wall of Pilato’s kitchen and its ceiling, repair her bathroom wall and floor and take care of other problems.

“My bathroom ceiling was covered in mold,” she says. “It was black.”

They also replaced Pilato’s kitchen counters and cabinets. When they removed the cabinets, they found a nest full of dead mice and their droppings. Workers came to her apartment as many as six times altogether to repair walls and plumbing before they finally were successful. Then, her pipes began leaking again.

“Still, to this day, I have a leak,” she says.

In addition to dealing with mold and mice droppings, Pilato recently learned that some of the materials used to build her apartment contain asbestos. Mice carry hantaviruses and other illnesses; mold can cause respiratory symptoms and other health problems, and asbestos is a known carcinogen. (More about that later.) Though she cannot say for certain, Pilato believes that the mold and asbestos and the past presence of the rodents might have affected the family’s health.

“My son and daughter never had asthma until we moved here,” she says. “Also, I have a nine-millimeter nodule in my lung that has been growing. It was first noticed in 2023.”

Pilato believes that as many as 12 other families in her apartment complex have suffered similar problems with their apartments. As her concern about conditions at the Pines grew, she decided to take action. About six months ago, she gathered together a small group of like-minded people and founded the Pines Tenant Association. As the convener, she’s begun pressing WinnCompanies to respond better to tenants’ needs.

Porter lived in the Pines from 1985 to 2016, first as a child growing up in her family’s residence, then as a mother with three children. Her apartment on Locust Lane had the same kinds of problems as Pilato’s. Mice infested her stove, so she could use only the stovetop to cook. They also found their way into the apartment’s air vents, so she and her children were forced to breathe the fumes from the rodent’s droppings and urine. Porter reported the problem to the Pines’ management, and was dissatisfied with its maintenance crew’s response.

“All they left was sticky mousetraps, and said ‘really nothing they could do,’” she says.

In addition, the apartment’s pipes leaked, causing mold to grow in her bathroom and another room. Porter remained in the place until she could afford to move, then relocated to another part of Perinton.

“I was forced to move out of there because of the mice infestation and the flooding, and just the neglect of the property,” she says.

Porter, who is African American, believes the Pines’ lack of appropriate action on such problems might indicate a bias on the part of those running the complex.

“It feels like it’s intentional, because they’re dealing with a demographic of people who are poor, including myself, or a demographic of people who are Black and brown,” she says.

She also believes that such biases might also have led the town of Perinton to take the concerns of the Pines’ tenants less seriously than those of other residents.

“It’s no coincidence that the only place that has concentrated Black and Brown people is also the one that’s getting treated the worst by the town,” she says.

According to data from WinnCompanies, 13 percent of the households at the Pines are Hispanic. Of the 87 percent of the households that are non-Hispanic, 20 percent of that group identifies as Black or African American, and five percent as Asian. Together, minority groups appear to comprise close to 35 percent of the complex’s households. Though English is the primary language of most living at the Pines, Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic, French and other languages are the primary languages in some households.

In contrast, the U.S. Census estimated that a total of 8.1 percent of Perinton’s population identified as Hispanic, Black or African American, or Asian in 2023.

In 2020, Porter formed Being Black in the Burbs & Accomplices, a group dedicated to fighting anti-Black racism and discrimination in Rochester’s suburbs.

As part of that effort, she began talking to the residents of the Pines about their concerns.

“They spanned from having rental issues … on top of that issues within their house, whether it was the ceiling falling in or mice infestation or the mold or whatever,” she says.

Porter decided to join with like-minded friends to push WinnCompanies and the town of Perinton to take on such problems. Bill Wynne has been involved with social justice causes for some time. About a year ago, he began working as an adviser to Porter and an advocate for residents of the Pines with the town of Perinton. Since then, he’s met with Perinton’s town board and other officials, including town supervisor Ciaran Hanna, more than a dozen times.

Wynne believes that the Pines residents’ economic statuses have left them less able to advocate for themselves with its management and the town.

“It’s really a class issue, because of the demographics for the poor white, as well as Blacks and Hispanics and immigrants,” Wynne says. “They’re stretched to the limit just trying to merely survive.”

For Karin Nowicki, who is a longtime friend of Porter’s and a member of the City-Wide Tenant Union of Rochester, the Pines’ problems begin with its owner.

“This multi-billion-dollar housing corporation gets to provide substandard housing while … lining their pockets with money from people who are vulnerable,” she says.

The CWTU is a grassroots housing justice movement that seeks to establish access to housing as a human right, organize tenant unions and expand the rights of tenants. Nowicki has worked with Porter on the issues at the Pines for about two years. The Irondequoit resident has also joined the Pines Tenant Association as a non-tenant community organizer.

Overdue capital improvements

Last April, crews from the Rochester firm DiMarco Constructors began an extensive renovation of the Pines of Perinton.

“In a broad sense, the renovations address a lot of the overdue capital improvements to the infrastructure and the property itself that had gone undone for years,” Cafasso says.

The renovation plan called for replacing the roofs of the complex’s buildings and repainting exterior and interior walls. New, energy-efficient heating and cooling systems would be installed, along with new windows, plumbing, flooring, cabinets and lighting. At the same time, apartment kitchens and bathrooms would be updated. The residences that were destroyed by fire in 2022 would be completely rebuilt.

When payments to the architects and other professionals involved in the project, financing fees, construction loan interest and other costs are added in, the renovation will cost $137 million. Cafasso says the entire project is expected to be completed by fall 2025.

The Pines of Perinton complex (Map courtesy of the Pines)

Testing conducted before the renovation project began found asbestos-containing materials in the wallboard joint compound, adhesives and window caulking used in building the Pines. Trace elements of ACM’s were also found in the stucco that covers the exterior of the buildings. Both would need to be dealt with during the apartment renovations.

“The work plan called for an interior rehab scope with a combination of encapsulation, where ACMs can safely remain in place, and remediation, where ACMs can be disturbed for plumbing line replacements, cabinet replacements, and other in-unit, intensive work scope,” says David Ginsberg, senior vice president of WinnDevelopment, WinnCompanies’ property development arm.

DiMarco has subcontractors who are licensed to handle ACM’s dealing with the problem. Monitors licensed by the state Labor Department’s Asbestos Control Bureau are watching over the work to make sure it meets official standards.

“As part of the process, the work plan and protocols related to ACMs have been continually updated based on field conditions,” Ginsberg says.

On Feb. 22, conditions in a part of the Pines under renovation prompted a monitor to call for a halt to the work. By March 6, the appropriate work protocol had been updated and approved by the ACB, and crews were back at work.

Individuals and families living in apartments that are slated for renovation are moved free of charge with all their belongings to partially renovated apartments, called transition units, in the Pines. The apartments feature free utilities and Internet access, along with free Roku streaming TV service.

The renovation of an apartment can take as long as four months. Once it’s done, the tenant is moved back to that apartment.

“These services are free for residents,” Cafasso says. “Residents are not incurring any additional costs outside of their normal monthly rent.”

An extensive renovation of the Pines began last April.

As of Feb. 27, the roofs on all of the Pines of Perinton’s buildings had been replaced, 51 apartments had been renovated, and another 39 were in the process of being renovated, Cafasso says. All 19 of the apartments destroyed in 2022 had been rebuilt, and tenants were moving in.

At this point, all but one of the 35 official code violations at the Pines have been fixed, though BCD had to take the Pines to Perinton Town Court to force action on some that were discovered in 2022.

“Apparently they weren’t resolved within a satisfactory time frame for the BCD, so they went through the court,” says Town Supervisor Hanna. “The Pines corrected all of the violations, and the town reinspected to confirm and reported back to the court.”

In the end, the court issued an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal and sealed case records.

“Since the court allowed the violations to be corrected, a trial did not have to occur, the Pines was not found guilty, and no fines were levied against the Pines,” Hanna says.

Altogether, the 2022 case took three court sessions that spanned about 10 weeks.

Porter isn’t satisfied with the work that was completed to correct the code violations.

“They fixed them in a subpar manner, but they passed the code inspection,” she says. “They did shoddy work.”

Pilato says pictures taken of transition apartments and newly renovated apartments show unacceptable workmanship.

“The pictures showed deficiencies,” she says. “Poor workmanship, no pride, just complete and utter failure: open spaces in walls, open spaces between the windows and the wall.”

Pilato believes she could see asbestos through those gaps.

Ongoing concerns

On the afternoon of Feb. 28, Pilato and Nowicki met at the Pines with Lynn Bora, executive vice president of WinnResidential, which manages WinnCompanies’ properties. Also present were Ginsberg, two DiMarco executives and about 13 others involved in some way in the renovation project. There, the two activists presented residents’ concerns about conditions at the Pines.

“We showed them all of our pictures on my picture boards from tenants’ units,” Pilato says.

They also talked about the Pines’ renovation process and the transition units.

“We’ve said, for example, the materials you’re using (are) cheap. It looks like garbage,” Pilato says.

Bora seemed willing to listen to their concerns.

“She stated that it’s going to take time, of course, but they’re willing to hear our outcries for help and for change and for habitable living conditions,” Pilato says.

At Bora’s suggestion, Pilato and Nowicki took her and the DiMarco executives on a tour of apartments that have deficiencies of concern to tenants. The meeting that was supposed to last only an hour stretched on to close to 90 minutes. Pilato says she thinks it went well.

“I think we made ourselves heard very loud and clear,” she says. “I feel like they said yesterday that they are going to work with us.”

Nowicki agreed that she and Pilato were able to make their points.

“We let them know that we expect, moving forward, full transparency, and we let them know that we were looking forward to collaborating for the tenants so that they can have health, safety and habitability,” she says.

Bora also spoke positively of the gathering’s results.

“One of the most important outcomes of the meeting with the tenant association was to open lines of communication and to agree that we are working toward the same goals,” she says. “That’s a great start for what I hope will be a working relationship.”

After the meeting, Cafasso presented 13 measures that participants agreed to take during the session. At the top of the list was that representatives of WinnDevelopment, WinnResidential and Connected Communities, WinnCompanies’ community development nonprofit, will meet regularly in person with the Pines Tenant Association. Representatives of DiMarco Constructors and other organizations involved in the renovation may also attend. WinnDevelopment also agreed to give a presentation on asbestos mitigation to the community by the end of March to alleviate tenants’ concerns.

When the town board assembled for its regularly scheduled session, Porter stepped up to the podium to comment on the meeting between WinnCompanies and the Pines Tenant Association.

“I was not there for that meeting, but (I’m) optimistic, hopeful that this will create the kind of change that they need,” she says.

At the same time, Porter expressed frustration that repeated meetings with the town board had not resulted in changes at the Pines.

“The reason why we are here is because you hold the power,” she says. “”I’m hoping that we can bring some humanity back to the humans in the Pines, because they’ve been suffering for so long.”

In her view, communications among Winn, the town and the residents must improve. Tenants need to know of resources available to them.

“If residents out there are experiencing issues, they need to contact the town,” Hanna says. “We need to know. We can’t go out there without being contacted to know where we’re going.”

He went on to say that since January 2023, nine residents of the Pines have reported problems to Perinton officials. BCD determined that the problems constituted code violations, and eight of them have since been remedied.

In addition, with the permission of the Pines, BCD checks all the transition units for possible code violations before residents stay in them.

“We approached them and asked them to allow us to inspect all of the hospitality units in between residents as one moves out (and) the next one moves in,” Hanna says.

Hanna also suggested that the Pines Tenant Association inform the complex’s residents that the BCD will address such problems directly.

“If it isn’t a code violation, if it’s a regular maintenance issue, our protocol is to go out with (the Pines’) maintenance and look at it, and at that time we can say, ‘Fix that. That needs to be fixed,’” he says.

Wynne notes that residents of the Pines might not know that conditions in their apartments might constitute code violations, or what to do when those conditions arise.

“Let’s open up our minds and hearts to find out what we can do to get that information to help them report in,” Wynne says.

Porter called upon the town to recognize the circumstances in which residents of the Pines live.

“You’re dealing with an oppressed demographic of people who are dealing with a company that abused them for so long,” she says. “You have to understand the dynamics of their situation and how it is not easy for them to call for help, because when they do a lot, they are retaliated against.”

Instead of waiting for residents of the Pines to contact the BIC, Porter suggested, the town could ask for volunteers to put notices on their doors requesting notification when suspected code violations arise. She and the other activists might be willing to work with Perinton officials to do that.

When interviewed before the Feb. 28 town board meeting, Hanna asserted that the town has tried to help the Pines and its tenants work together on the problems at the complex.

“We’re trying to really bridge that gap that is there between the residents and management,” he says. “I don’t want anybody that has to live in a situation where they feel is not safe or not a living situation that is bearable.”

He confessed to being disappointed to hear advocates for the Pines’ tenants say they don’t feel that the town is doing enough for its residents because they have low incomes.

Lynn Bora

“I have stressed that the town can get involved if we are notified of (code) violations, he says. “We immediately send Building and Code Enforcement out there to take a look when we’re notified.”

If the problem doesn’t constitute a code violation, the town can’t order the Pines to take care of it, but will encourage the complex to do so, he adds.

When told of Porter’s assertions about possible biases against the Pines’ residents, Bora declared them to be wrong. 

“I’m very sorry to hear that Tiffany feels that way,” Bora says. “This is absolutely not true. Each resident is treated equally and fairly.”

She also rejected the idea that the Pines has retaliated against tenants who have complained about the conditions of their apartments.

“I am not aware of any retaliation that’s ever occurred against a resident at the Pines or in any other property that we manage,” Bora says. “Residents are the eyes and ears of the community; we want to have and maintain a constructive relationship with every household at the Pines.”

Though Pilato viewed the meeting with Bora favorably, she is ready for further action. She recently circulated a petition to residents of the Pines.

“The petition is demanding that we, the tenants, are able to live in our homes and have them be healthy, up to date, basically habitable conditions,” she says.

About 70 residents have signed the petition so far. Pilato had not presented it to the Pines management, but might make use of it if necessary.

“We’re going to demand that our homes and our living conditions be made habitable,” she says. “If not, we will protest. We will try to all come together to withhold rent.”

Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. Jacob Schermerhorn, Beacon contributing writer and data journalist, created data visualizations for this article. 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]

One thought on “Problems at the Pines

  1. Thank you for this thorough update. I’m so glad to see renovations occurring and to hear that residents are organizing to make sure they are high quality and effective. I am thrilled that the Town of Perinton is actively involved and assertive in code review.

    I also think it is important for the people in power to remember that many of these residents have learned through their own and their families’ lived experiences to expect to be treated as second class citizens and to fear that raising their concerns are as likely to make their situation worse as it is to make it better. I know that Supervisor Hanna and the Town Board want the Pines to be a safe and comfortable living situation; I would ask them to be empathetic and understanding of the residents’ anxieties and frustrations — and how that may be expressed — in order to continue to build trust and to continue to improve their living situations.

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