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$3.5 million tenant defense fund announced

Assemblymember Jen Lunsford speaks at a podium to announce $3.5 million legal defense fund.
James Brown
Assemblymember Jen Lunsford speaks at a podium to announce $3.5 million legal defense fund.

Less than 10% of tenants have access to an attorney during disputes with their landlords and local Democrats are trying to change that. 

During a news conference outside the Hall of Justice Friday, the state's Democratic delegation announced a $3.5 million tenant defense fund that will be split among agencies in several upstate counties. The program’s goal is to stabilize housing and prevent homelessness.

Zachary Pike, who leads the civil division of the Legal Aid Society, said the area has needed something like this badly for years. Pike said Rochester’s eviction rate is six times the national average. 

“Our per capita rate is higher than New York City, Detroit, Philadelphia, and just about any major city,” said Pike. “We actually have more evictions than our neighbors in Buffalo or Syracuse or even cities like Los Angeles.”

State Assemblywoman Jen Lunsford, who represents the 135th District, said that she’s well aware of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on landlords as well.

“All of this money, the $3.5 million in housing relief ultimately goes to landlords, we are helping them out,” said Lunsford. “We’re very proud of our housing bill and that we’re able to secure so much funding to help secure housing for everybody here in Monroe County.”

State Senator Jeremy Cooney, who represents the 56th District, said this continues his party’s push for more protections for renters.

“This is an opportunity and this testament for a new day for western New York, a western New York that recognizes and speaks up for its most vulnerable citizens,” said Cooney.

Cooney said the delegation has had discussions as recently as two weeks ago about limits on when and why someone can be evicted. Assemblyman Harry Bronson, who represents the 138th District, said there’s a package of tenants’ rights laws moving through the legislature but said they’re “a heavy lift” and may not make it. 

Bronson said he’s in support of a dedicated court for housing issues in Rochester. He’s also a co-sponsor on a measure that would allow tenants to take landlords to court if their buildings aren’t up to code. 

“Those are laws that don’t have anything fiscal attached to it, so they’ll be decided and debated over the next few weeks as the legislative session ends in June,” said Cooney.

Assemblywoman Sarah Clark (136th District) and Bronson expressed support for continuing New York’s evictions moratorium. Bronson said he’s had discussions over the last few days about extending it to August.

James Brown is a reporter with WXXI News. James previously spent a decade in marketing communications, while freelance writing for CITY Newspaper. While at CITY, his reporting focused primarily on arts and entertainment.