Rochester City Council on Monday discussed a series of proposals meant to stem a wave of evictions that could come as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has halted evictions until Aug. 20 for people directly impacted by the pandemic. Council is concerned that a surge of evictions could follow.
Among the ideas that Council discussed is helping the Catholic Family Center devise a plan to use the $900,000 that the city already committed to spend on eviction prevention. Another measure would pay for counsel for those involved in eviction proceedings. That would also cost about $900,000.
They’re also considering the potential of using grant funds to help tenants buy their houses from their landlords.
Council members were generally supportive of the ideas, including Vice President Willie Lightfoot, but he expressed concerns about landlords who could be affected by the changes.
“I wouldn’t want to sign onto anything that could have unintended consequences on Black and brown businesses that are already suffering significantly,” said Lightfoot.
Councilmember Malik Evans said he likes the ideas but only if they come with an effort to get to the root cause of evictions. He said evictions are symptoms of other issues.
“They have to go hand in hand,” Evans said. ”The triage, the immediate thing. You stop the bleeding, you help. But then you say, 'Here’s the resources if you think you’ll be in this situation again. We’ve got to be able to help you so you don’t end up back here again.' "
Another idea discussed is potential good or just cause eviction laws. Among other protections, good cause laws limit how much landlords can increase rents, and also prevents an eviction without a court hearing.
One of the biggest proponents of the idea is Councilmember Mary Lupien, who argues that some landlords use month-to-month leases for bad intentions.
“They keep them on month-to-month leases specifically so that they can get them out, whether or not they want to sell the property or they want to do major renovations. It keeps people in unstable housing conditions,” said Lupien.
Councilmember Michael Patterson also expressed some concerns. He said problem tenants exist, and landlords should have some mechanism to remove them.
“I understand the concern. I have it, too,” said Patterson. “If we’re going to restrict rent, in my mind, we have to see that there’s an actual housing emergency because it is the private market — and I’m sorry, I’m going to sound like the bad guy here, but it’s a business, and businesses are in business to make a profit.”
A vacancy study was approved by Council last year. Based on rent reforms passed at the state level last year, if less than 5 percent of apartments are vacant, Council can declare a housing emergency and create its own rent laws.
The measures that Council discussed will likely not be voted on until at least August. Council President Loretta Scott said they need more time to flesh the ideas out.
Scott said Council has spoken to local tenants rights groups a number of times and they need to have discussions with landlords, too.