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Heftier fines await Rochester’s non-compliant property owners

Frustrated by an outdated code compliance fee schedule and concerned about ongoing safety issues caused by vacant properties, the city of Rochester intends to augment legal procedures to rid neighborhoods of blighted structures.

Fines for code violations will double, the time between ticketing will be cut in half and penalties of up to $1,000 a day will be imposed if the city is required to commence legal action to compel a property owner to remedy serious problems. The measures will be brought before City Council next month.

“It’s the only way we will end the blight,” Mayor Malik Evans said at a Friday morning news conference at City Hall. “If you won’t correct the code violations, we will hold you accountable.”

Amendments to the city’s municipal code, along with introduction of a Landlord-Tenant Bill of Rights ordinance, will be up for vote by City Council on May 23.

That includes an amendment creating a vacant property registry. Property owners will be required to report the vacancy to the city, provide information on how the vacancy will be remedied and/or plans for the property, and also identify owners behind any limited liability company (LLC) that has title.

“Some people have as much right being a landlord as I have piloting the space shuttle,” Evans said.

Disclosing the names and addresses of owners behind an LLC will be required on any documents filed with the city moving forward, such as certificates of occupancy, Kingsley said.

Evans stressed that the majority of property owners are responsible. “We know there are many, many quality housing providers,” he said. “This is not targeting people who are doing things the right way.”

The issue, he said, is that vacant structures often are catalysts for criminal activity, bring down the value of adjacent properties and often become targets of arson.

“I will never forgive a landlord if one of my firefighters is injured or killed in one of those fires,” Evans said.

The fine schedule increases substantially. What were considered low-level code violations now carry a fine of $100 (instead of $50). Initial health and safety violations increase from $75 to $250. Intermediate hazard offenses jump to $500 (from $150).

Adding teeth to the measure: Instead of a 60-day window between the first fine and a second fine, the city can issue another ticket after 30 days. Too many property owners currently find it less expensive to pay the fines than fix the building, according to Linda Kingsley, corporation counsel for the city.

“Our fines were seriously behind the times,” Kingsley said.

The vast majority of property issues are in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, Evans said.

“Some of these properties you won’t find in our surrounding suburbs because they won’t go for it,” he said, “and we’re not going for it here, either.

Said City Council President Miguel Melendez: “This is about expediting code enforcement.”

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