When City Councilmember Mary Lupien was campaigning last year, she said she heard from hundreds of Rochester residents who described the unlivable conditions in their homes.
"Many, many are living in unsafe housing conditions with black mold, literally, with raw sewage in the basement, ceilings collapsing," she said. "It's unfortunate the way many of our disinvested neighborhoods have been allowed to disintegrate since the '60s when many people left our city."
Lupien, who was elected to represent the East District in November, said the approach to solving the crisis is evolving and improvement.
Advocates say the opening of Rochester's first housing court this week is a significant step in that direction.
The specialized part of Rochester City Court is the result of at least two years of efforts by housing activists, elected officials, and judicial leaders to come up with a way for tenants to have an easier, faster way to hold negligent property owners accountable.
Judge Stephen Miller will be presiding over the specialized housing expedited part, also known as SHEP.
Tenants who file claims against their landlords must first show that they failed to resolve the issue through the city's code violation bureau.
"As the law stands right now, this part will not be a place where a tenant can get an order from a judge saying, 'You must fix this,' " explained Craig Doran, administrative judge of the 7th Judicial District. "We will be encouraging mediation, alternative dispute resolution, other mechanisms of resolving disputes."
But Doran said the judge has other options, such as telling a landlord that a tenant's rent will be withheld if repairs are not made within a certain period of time, or in some cases, rent could be reimbursed if a tenant has been living in substandard conditions.
Claims can be filed in Room 6 on the first floor of the Hall of Justice.
The city of Rochester can also initiate legal action against landlords. In some cases, Mayor Lovely Warren said, the city has been able to transfer ownership of properties to landlords who have a proven track record of providing quality housing.
But SHEP, Warren said, is specifically for tenants.
"Quality housing is not something our tenants and people living in our city should have to fight for," said Warren. "It's something they should have a right to."
Doran noted that the new housing court will not result in any additional costs for taxpayers. He said the new effort will operate within the existing City Court framework to serve people who most need access to the legal system and who need it quickly.