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Vacancy study: Rochester doesn’t qualify for rent control

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Gino Fanelli/CITY
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The city of Rochester does not qualify to opt into state rent control laws, according to the results of an apartment vacancy survey it conducted.

The Rent Stabilization and Emergency Tenant Protection Act, which New York lawmakers passed in 2019, allows local governments in the state to implement laws limiting annual rent increases in qualifying buildings and granting tenants in good standing the right to renew leases.

But to opt in, Rochester officials needed to show that a class of buildings they hoped to opt into the law had an average vacancy rate of less than 5%. They chose apartment buildings with more than six units built before 1974, of which there are 688 in the city. The survey received a 37% response rate and showed that the average vacancy rate among that group of buildings was 9%.

“This study concludes that Rochester does not meet the legal threshold required by the ETPA to declare an emergency and opt-in to rent stabilization at this time,” the study reads.

Councilmember and Mayor-elect Malik Evans expressed confidence with the companies that carried out the study and the results, but said the time is right to address the housing issues that Rochester faces regardless of the survey outcomes.

“We’re going to always be asking for independent third parties to give us true analyses, but it won’t always come back to what we may want to hear,” Evans said. “So then we have to just look to the next step to see what we want to do to fix a problem we know is there.”

City Council voted to conduct the $40,000 vacancy study in December 2019, following pressure to do so from city housing activists. The study was ultimately carried out by Mullin and Lonergan Associates, Fourth Economy Consulting, and Highland Planning.

In a statement Thursday, the Rochester City-Wide Tenant Union, which had pressed Council to take steps toward opting into the rent and tenant protection laws, called the study inherently flawed and called for the city to have a do-over.

“The vacancy study relied on landlords self-reporting vacancies in their properties. Landlords with low vacancy rates had an incentive to either not participate in the vacancy study or misreport their vacancy rates.” the statement reads.

A little over a third of property owners, representing 245 buildings responded to the survey. About 64% of those respondents self-reported a vacancy rate of less than 5%. As for properties whose owners did not respond, the survey projects that their vacancy rates were in line with the average of the responding properties.

Councilmember Mary Lupien, a longtime housing advocate, was frustrated with the survey’s execution.

“One-third of the respondents reported a really high vacancy rate, which doesn’t track,” Lupien said. “If we’re not verifying it, then what’s the consequence for giving an inaccurate result?”

Looking at the buildings in terms of size by units, no group reported a vacancy rate of less than 5% overall, though there were differences. For example, buildings with six units reported a net vacancy rate of 5%, while buildings with 26 to 35 units reported on average that 16.7% of their units were vacant.

The study determined that since the majority of properties reported a vacancy rate of 5% or less, it was unlikely the results were skewed one way or another by survey respondents.

“The analyses and findings above show that there is no compelling evidence that proves bias in the survey data received or that suggests that a higher survey response could drive the overall net vacancy rate below 5 percent,” the study reads.

Lupien is not in favor of a full do-over, but rather marking all non-responding properties as a zero, rather than assuming they are in the average.

“I do not believe that the administration wants rent control, not saying that they set this up in a way that would portray the results that they wanted, but I don’t think they’re doing the due diligence to make sure the results are accurate,” Lupien said.

The findings of the study were presented to City Council and Mayor Lovely Warren Wednesday. In that meeting, councilmembers generally welcomed the results, while also noting that rent burden and housing stability remain problems for many city residents.

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or gino@rochester-citynews.com.