- PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
- Over the past four months, Michael Furlano, an attorney for the city of Rochester, filed roughly two dozen code enforcement lawsuits against neglectful property owners.
City records suggest it has looked that way for four years. But it may not look that way much longer.
Recently, the city asked a court for permission to demolish it, arguing that it has been abandoned. The case is one of roughly two dozen code enforcement lawsuits filed against neglectful property owners by the city in the last four months.
Behind each of them is Michael Furlano, an experienced housing attorney who the city hired last fall to ramp up residential code enforcement. Since then, he has focused on the worst-of-the-worst properties — like the one on Riley Park — that pose a public hazard.
- PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
- The city has asked a court for permission to demolish this vacant house on Riley Park.
He said, though, that he also intends to take on negligent landlords who ignore their tenants’ pleas to fix major problems.
“At the point where we’re considering a court case should be the end of the line,” Furlano said. “We’ve given you enough opportunity, now we’re going to bring the hammer down. We’re going to demand that you fix these issues or we’re going to get a court order to tell us to do so.”
There has been no shortage of problem rental properties in the city in recent years. In one egregious case, a landlord was collecting rent from tenants in a condemned building.
Residents and housing rights activists have repeatedly drawn attention to apartment buildings with pervasive mold, collapsing ceilings, water leaks, rodent and insect infestations, unreliable heat, insecure entrances, drafty windows, and more. The topic routinely dominates the public open forum prior to monthly City Council meetings.
Furlano cut his teeth representing tenants facing eviction in Rochester City Court. A native of Windsor, Ontario, he moved to Rochester roughly nine years ago for a public interest fellowship at the Legal Aid Society of Rochester. After the fellowship, the agency hired him.
“You don’t go to law school to become a housing attorney, but it’s something you kind of stumble into,” Furlano said. “You enjoy the stories, you have a direct impact.”
During his time at the Legal Aid Society, Furlano worked with tenants residing in dilapidated buildings and began thinking about how to best force landlords to act.
- PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
- Michael Furlano outside his office at City Hall. Furlano was hired in the fall to ramp up residential code enforcement.
In January 2020, Furlano won a case he brought on behalf of Linda Barger, who lived in an apartment on Sherman Street infested with mice and in disrepair. He had asked a judge to order the apartment’s owner to address the rodents and to make repairs to the apartment, a request the judge granted. The case was the first of its kind in Rochester City Court, and the victory showed that tenants do have a legal mechanism to compel landlords to fix serious problems.
Barger died shortly after that decision, putting a damper on legal follow through.
Furlano later handled housing matters for the Empire Justice Center, another legal assistance advocacy group. He jumped over to the job in the city’s Law Department, he said, because it put him in a position where he could pursue lawsuits against problem landlords and properties, similar in scope to the one he litigated on Barger’s behalf.
Linda Kingsley, City Hall’s top attorney, said her department has been enforcing code violations at places of business, but that it didn’t have the staff to focus aggressively on prosecuting housing violations. Furlano filled that void.
"We're not saying we're going to make life miserable for you if you want to own real property for rental, but we're saying we're going to have certain expectations, just like we have expectations of the bar owners and the corner store owners and every other business that runs in this city,” Kingsley said. “It's a business, they've got to do it."
Furlano echoed the sentiment. The city’s main goal, he said, is not to bleed landlords for money, but to improve the quality of housing for tenants.
The city won’t throw its full weight behind “ticky tacky” violations, he said. But it will seek to prosecute landlords for issues such as vermin infestation, health and safety concerns, problems with windows or doors, and for blowing off complaints from tenants.
Furlano said he also plans to target landlords who are found to have retaliated against complaining tenants by evicting them.
“Your home is your refuge, it's your safe space,” Furlano said. “If you don't feel safe and secure in your home that's going to have a detrimental effect on every other aspect of your life, so I think it's important that we emphasize safe and habitable housing."
Jeremy Moule is CITY's deputy editor. He can be reached at [email protected].