Rochester ducks rent stabilization as survey shows 9% vacancy

Results questioned as most landlords failed to participate

Rochester ducks rent stabilization as survey shows 9% vacancy
Rochester, NY and Mayor Lovely Warren (CityofRochester.gov, iStock)

Rochester landlords are breathing a sigh of relief as a survey ruled out the immediate possibility of rent stabilization.

Questions remain, however, about the survey results, as tenant advocates said many landlords gamed the outcome by refusing to participate.

The study, conducted in consultation with private firms M&L Associates, Highland Planning and Fourth Economy, revealed a 9 percent vacancy rate, above the 5 percent maximum needed for the city to opt in to rent stabilization. Such a system, already in place for about 1 million rental units in New York, the vast majority of which are in New York City, would severely limit rent increases.

The results of the survey, presented to the City Council on Thursday, were reported by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

Mayor Lovely Warren vowed to accept the results of the study, saying the city needs “to look forward to next steps” in addressing affordability issues. City Councilman Malik Evans, Warren’s likely replacement next year, also said the results were similar to market data.

Expectations were for a lower vacancy rate, considering the pandemic. But some housing advocates claim landlords lacked any incentive to respond honestly or at all.

According to the Democrat and Chronicle, the spring survey had only a 37 percent response rate, covering 245 properties and 3,540 units. Only properties with six-plus units or garden-style complexes built before 1974 were included.

“With a 37% response rate I don’t see how we can say that is accurate in any way, shape or form,” said City Councilmember Mary Lupien.

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Rent-control advocates suspect that landlords with low vacancy rates were more likely to not return the survey, artificially increasing the calculated vacancy rate.

Rochester is dealing with an affordability crisis, where census data show median rent in the city is rising faster than median income. The city has been looking for strategies to combat homelessness and problematic landlords. It’s estimated that rent stabilization would affect between 22,500 and 30,000 people in the city.

Vacancy rate studies have been the source of controversy in the past. In New York City, landlord groups have expressed concern about the Housing and Vacancy Survey, claiming it distorts vacancy rates in order to maintain rent stabilization.

Economists, for their part, generally do not consider rent control an effective way to provide housing affordability because it discourages construction of rentals and creates winners and losers, rather than focus resources on residents who need them most. They also note that it compels tenants to cling to below-market units, distorting the marketplace and limiting the mobility of all renters.

In New York, rent stabilization is attached to units, not people, so tenants of any income level can take advantage of the program. State law provides for automatic lease renewals if tenants comply with lease terms, leading to very low turnover of units and low vacancy rates, making affordable housing difficult to find for those who need it or might want to move.

Landlords say low rent increases starve them of the cash they need to maintain their properties, leading to an overall deterioration of the housing stock.

[Rochester Democrat and Chroncile] — Holden Walter-Warner