When Jesus Miranda finishes off his 12-hour shifts at the Dewey Avenue Walmart, he wants nothing more than to go home, take a hot shower, have a home-cooked meal and get to bed.
But his apartment doesn't have any hot water — in fact, right now it doesn't have any water — the heat is spotty, the stove doesn't work and the City of Rochester last week condemned his 21-unit building over code violations related to tenant safety and winter weather.
"It's absurd, it's not fair for us," said Miranda on Monday outside 960 Dewey Ave., owned by Rochester Asset Management, where the entry doors were plastered with orange notices from the city proclaiming "This building has been vacated and is not to be occupied."
Standing in the snow-covered courtyard, Miranda joined with representatives from the nascent City-wide Tenants Union, as well as members from Take Back the Land Rochester and the Upstate/Downstate Housing alliance, to call on legislators for a Rochester Housing Court modeled on similar courts in Buffalo and New York City. In those courts tenants can seek court-ordered repairs or ask the court to put the building into public receivership if landlords are unwilling to provide habitable living conditions.
"We need a city court for us," said Miranda. "Something for the tenants so we can just go there and explain our concerns, our worries about the buildings we live in."
City records show the building where Miranda rents has 15 outstanding code violations. He said tenant calls for fixes were not heard by building management.
Last week, Landsman Development Corp. took action to make fixes to its Southview Towers apartment building after the Democrat and Chronicle reported on conditions inside some of that complex's apartments. Residents there complained of icicles on their windows and inadequate heat. Other area news agencies reported on the issues at 960 Dewey Ave.
Ryan Acuff, with the Tenants Union, said those well-publicized stories "are very dramatic cases, but not isolated."
Indeed, he said a team of eight from the Tenants Union went door-to-door on Sunday at three different apartment buildings "and people were living in horrible conditions just like here."
He said one pregnant woman was living in an apartment with mold-covered walls, other people had collapsing ceilings and there were other buildings without heat during the coldest days so far this winter.
"The reason this has gotten so bad is that tenants have been disempowered," he said. "There isn't any recourse for tenants. There's a process landlords can take tenants to court, but no process for tenants to take landlords to court to make necessary repairs."
Rochester does have a landlord-tenant court, but that is typically used when landlords are seeking to evict a tenant or go after a tenant for non-payment of rent. There is no process in place for tenants to easily seek the court's assistance in getting their apartment up to habitable standards.
In the New York City housing court model the Tenants Union would like to see replicated here, tenants can fight illegal eviction proceedings, ask the court to order the landlord to make repairs in their apartment or building and can ask the court to take control of the building away from the landlord and give it to a court-supervised administrator.
Renters across the state, including in Rochester, can already wage those fights to some extent. But unlike in Buffalo and New York City, where Housing Court functions like a user-friendly small claims court, tenants’ cases here and elsewhere play out in the traditional court system.
That system can be cumbersome, expensive and intimidating to litigants with few means and little or no experience with the judicial system.
State Supreme Court Justice Craig Doran, the administrative judge for the Rochester region, said Monday he is considering carving out a part in the court system that deals specifically with housing issues.
That might include assigning a specific judge to such cases exclusively and finding a place for nonprofit agencies in the courthouse to assist and support litigants. Such specialized parts of the system already exist for a variety of matters, including drug abuse, mental health and veterans’ issues.
“I’m not saying we should rule out moving forward with the establishment of a Housing Court,” Doran said. “It’s been my preference, where we can, to address issues in-house so to speak and not wait for the state Legislature to take action.”
Doran said he was moved to consider a housing part after receiving a Nov. 14, 2017, letter from 25 elected officials from Monroe County, the Rochester Board of Education and the city, including Mayor Lovely Warren and all nine City Council members, asking that a Rochester City Court judge be assigned to adjudicate housing matters for a one-year period.
Doran added that he and Rochester City Court Judge Theresa Johnson, the administrative judge for City Court, met with some of the officials last month to discuss the matter.
“We want to make sure that people get the justice they need when they come through the door,” Doran said. "A lot of these issues can be resolved through a collaboration.”
The Seventh Judicial District, which encompasses the Rochester region, has since 2013 had a help center in the Hall of Justice dedicated to assisting poor and inexperienced litigants.
Nearly 3,550 people sought assistance last year, and landlord-tenant disputes accounted for 14.4 percent of their inquiries, the highest percentage of any category, according to the center.
Acuff said the Tenants Union, Take Back the Land and the Upstate/Downstate Housing Alliance would like to see a Rochester Housing Court approved by the state Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo this spring.
"There are a lot of laws on the books, state and local laws, that protect tenants when it comes to habitability, sanitation, health and safety," said Acuff. "But as we see here, if it doesn't work out, if the landlords don't fulfill that need, they're given citations and they still don't fix it and then people are forced to move.
"It is necessary for tenants to have the ability to take their landlords to court."