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July 8, 2024

Are CT fair rent commissions effective? Bloomfield case tests limits

TABIUS MCCOY / CT MIRROR Curry plunges the black sludge coming from her bathroom sink that her household uses daily including her young granddaughter. Curry mentioned that this build up is a daily issue and often leaves her feeling unsafe to use the own water within her household.

Six-year-old Ayla saves up her birthday money and every coin she comes across, hoping she can collect enough in her toy safe to buy her family a new house.

Ever since she can remember, their home at the Wedgewood Apartments in Bloomfield has been plagued with problems. A bathtub with peeling paint. Broken appliances. Poorly maintained outdoor areas. A water heater placed in their apartment in violation of building code.

Ayla, who has been given a pseudonym at her family’s request, knows they’ve done everything they can to protect her. They’ve attended tenant union meetings, talked to town councilors and state lawmakers and issued complaints with the Bloomfield Fair Rent Commission.

And still, her family doesn’t feel safe in their housing.

Despite going before the Fair Rent Commission for help addressing poor housing conditions and then a rent increase, the family is still struggling to get repairs done.

There’s a persistent smell of sewage that floats through the air vents in the apartment, especially when it rains. Their fridge doesn’t seal correctly, meaning the food sometimes spoils quickly. The grass isn’t cut, there’s been construction material out on the grounds for years and the pool is closed. They have to use a plunger on the bathroom sink nearly every day to remove black gunk that clogs the pipes.

“She’s been saving her little coins for a house because she don’t want to live like that,” said Donna Curry, Ayla’s grandmother.

Their case points to some of the limitations of fair rent commissions, which are local boards set up to hear complaints about unfair rent increases. They can also hear cases that deal with loss of services at apartment complexes or substandard apartment conditions.

But tenants at the Bloomfield complex say enforcement of the commission’s decisions has been lacking, and when issues linger after a fair rent case is over, they’re unsure where else to turn.

A state law passed in 2022 expanded the number of fair rent commissions in Connecticut, mandating that all towns with populations of 25,000 or more establish one. As towns set up their commissions and those commissions start hearing cases, some are running into questions about how to ensure landlords abide by their rulings.

Fair rent commissions can make legally binding rulings in cases, although those can be appealed in the state’s court system. Rulings can mean a lower rent or requirements that repairs be made. In some cases, commissions can lower rent to $1 per month until conditions improve.

Curry and her daughter, Kamera Harrison, had a case before the Bloomfield Fair Rent Commission in 2022 that dealt in part with peeling paint in their bathtub. That case was closed Jan. 25, 2023. They went before the commission again on Aug. 31, 2023, protesting a rent increase from $1,350 a month to $1,425.

Harrison told commission members that the apartment wasn’t worth a rent of $1,425. She pointed to a water heater in the unit that had been placed there against building code, a lack of outdoor maintenance, difficulty getting repairs done and a broken shower head, according to city documents.

Up Realty, the landlord, moved the family into a hotel, and the commission waived their rent until repairs were made. After health and building inspectors reported that “accommodations were reasonably livable for the occupants,” the rent went up to $1,425.

Harrison said she thinks apartments in West Hartford get more attention from the West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District because the town is wealthier and has a larger white population — that it’s hard for them to get things fixed at their apartment complex in part because it is largely occupied by people of color.

“I want to know, is it a Black and brown thing? We have things going on in our apartment. Why aren’t they being fined?” Harrison said.

Health district director Aimee Krauss said during a July meeting of the Bloomfield town council’s Public Health, Safety and Environment subcommittee that in the last year, the department has dealt with 781 cases related to housing conditions. Just under 100 of those have been in Bloomfield, she said.

She also said that there are two open cases at Wedgewood with the health district.

During the town subcommittee meeting, an official with the town fire department also said that apartment management has been “working around the clock” to get things fixed at Wedgewood. Town fire marshals conduct inspections to ensure housing is up to fire code.

But as more problems have popped up at the apartment, tenants feel they’ve exhausted their options.

Daysha James, a regional property manager with Up Realty, said in a 2023 commission hearing that the company has gone “above and beyond” to fix the problems. She said outside of ongoing complaints from a couple of tenants, she’s not aware of other problems.

“We’ve had the plumbers out there, the city, they have passed everything,” James said in an interview with The Connecticut Mirror. “They have basically said there are no issues. We have had several fair rent commission hearings in which the town has also agreed that there are no issues. And I mean, as far as I know, we’ve had no complaints over there.”

CT Mirror spoke with tenants from six units in buildings at the complex who said they can’t get repairs done and a reporter witnessed some of the issues they spoke about including broken door locks, strong odors, problems with appliances and unkempt outdoor common areas.

The Bloomfield Fair Rent Commission declined interview requests from the CT Mirror, instead providing a written statement through a town spokesman.

“The Bloomfield Fair Rent Commission exists to maintain reasonable rental rates and facilitate fair rental increases on residential properties in the town,” Bloomfield spokesman Brian Wolff wrote. “It is made up of five dedicated residents who will investigate and act on complaints and inquiries. All commission decisions are based on the 13 factors that Connecticut law lists for consideration in Fair Rent Cases.

“As for enforcement, I am happy to say that we have had an outstanding track record of the parties adhering to the decisions of the commission,” Wolff added. “However, if need be there is a Connecticut General Statute Section 7-198f, which provides guidelines for violations.”

That section of state law outlines some of the powers of the fair rent commission.

Housing attorneys who train commission members on laws and best practices say they’re getting more questions about how to enforce orders, and that some town ordinances include schedules of fines for noncompliance.

Bloomfield’s ordinance has fines that can be issued through the health department for poor housing conditions. City and health department records don’t show any fines to the Bloomfield landlord.

Wolff also declined an interview request the CT Mirror sent to the Bloomfield-West Hartford Health District, which has been investigating conditions at the complex for years.

“The town has an interest in orders of its administrative boards being complied with,” said Rafie Podolsky, a housing attorney with Connecticut Legal Services. He said it undermines the town’s authority if orders aren’t followed.

“If people can find ways to retaliate and as a result keep people from filing a complaint or losing the benefit of a decision or losing the benefit of the apartment, that hurts the town,” he said.

Fair rent laws

The 2022 state law that expanded the number of fair rent commissions in the state required 27 additional towns with populations of 25,000 or more to create these boards by July 1, 2023. Before the law passed, 25 towns had commissions.

Many are still learning about their duties, and Podolsky said he’s more frequently answering questions about enforcement in training for new commission members.

Fair rent commissions have the power to conduct investigations, issue subpoenas and issue orders regarding landlord-tenant issues.

Typically, landlords abide by the fair rent commission’s rulings, said Sarah White, an attorney at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. When they don’t follow the orders, it’s usually on a more complicated ruling that deals with repairs, she said.

Sometimes, like in Curry and Harrison’s case, when the ruling involves repairs, the tenants may get frustrated while waiting. Usually, White said, landlords don’t try to charge more rent than the commission says they can, but issues can stem from online rental portals.

“I think these are solvable problems because the commissions do have significant power and maybe there are just some issues in understanding what to do and in exercising that power,” White said.

Podolsky said he recommends that commissions put the onus on the landlord to prove that they’ve made repairs and schedule a new hearing to ensure everyone’s concerns are heard.

He said that in some cases, fair rent commissions’ power to protect renters from retaliation when they file a complaint is limited because a fair rent commission isn’t connected to housing court. If a landlord files an eviction against a tenant, it’s often up to the tenant to report that to the commission.

“But dealing with the retaliation is really significant because it affects future cases. It affects people’s willingness to file cases,” Podolsky said.

State law has some protections against retaliatory eviction for up to six months after a tenant files a complaint, but sometimes evictions are filed after that time period.

He said sometimes landlords think that a commission’s rulings only apply for a month.

“That’s a big issue because landlords don’t really understand what a fair rent commission is, and the commissions, it’s hard for them,” he said.

Enforcement of their rulings are similar to other town administrative orders, Podolsky said. Town attorneys can offer legal advice and issue cease-and-desist letters on behalf of the commission.

Housing experts often point to New Haven’s commission as a best practice model, in part because the city has staff dedicated to the commission and they’ve done community outreach to ensure renters know about the service.

Wildaliz Bermudez, director of New Haven’s Fair Rent Commission, said their ordinance is structured in a way that the city fines landlords $100 per day if the ruling isn’t followed.

“To date we haven’t had that problem,” Bermudez said. “Every time we’ve had a ruling, we’ve had landlords who are in compliance and follow through.”

There have been a few issues with rent portals where the portal still reflects an outdated rent set prior to the tenant’s ruling. The commission also issues orders that says rent will be lowered until certain conditions are repaired, and pending approval from the city.

Some tenants in Hamden have reported problems with a landlord not complying with orders, and turned to the courts to help them with what they view as retaliatory behaviors.

“Our only mechanism is for the commission to fine the landlords,” said Hamden Mayor Lauren Garrett. “I’m not sure if I can provide more information beyond that.”

The question of compliance best practice is one that towns with fair rent commissions hope can be answered through more collaboration between these panels. During the last legislative session, a group of fair rent commission staffers and members met with lawmakers to talk about the best ways to communicate more frequently.

Housing Committee co-chair Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, said strengthening fair rent commissions is an issue she wants to work on as an advocate next session. She announced in May that she wouldn’t run for reelection.


Curry’s family found the Wedgewood Apartments in 2019 after a stint of homelessness. At first, they said, the apartments were nice. But since then, conditions have deteriorated.

When the family first moved there, they thought it would be a good place to raise Ayla. There’s outdoor space, and the neighbors have formed a community. They moved into the apartment after living at a hotel and didn’t want Ayla to experience the housing instability they’d felt.

“Why do we have to live like this? Why does this baby have to ingest mold? It’s crazy to me,” Curry said.

But after the apartment was sold to a new company, conditions deteriorated. The property is managed by Up Realty. Tenants at other Up Realty properties across the state, including in Woodstock and Middletown, have reported poor property upkeep and mass evictions when the company takes over their apartment complexes.

James maintains that they’ve made improvements at Wedgewood. For example, she told the CT Mirror that she hopes to get the pool open this summer, although it hasn’t been open for the past couple of years.

“I feel that it’s a beautiful property,” James said. “We have made major, major renovations, and we have gone above and beyond, and for the most part, many of our residents — I’m thinking the majority of our residents — are very happy.”

Other tenants told the CT Mirror that they’ve also had problems with the smell, moisture and mold in the apartments. Resident Enoch Charneco, who lives there with his wife and newborn, said their refrigerator also once broke down and it took the company so long to repair it that all the food spoiled.

After seeing the poor conditions continue, even after Curry and Harrison’s cases went before the Fair Rent Commission, he said he doesn’t see the point in asking them to help.

Tenants say they believe there should be fines issued until repairs are made.

“I’ve been crying, complaining,” Harrison said. “ … We’re still at square one.”

On Friday, two City Council members visited the Wedgewood Apartments to document some of the problems. Town Councilor Michael Oliver, who works in construction, said there was visible mold in some apartments, the smell of gas in one unit and issues with shoddy construction work.

“We are here to do what’s right,” Oliver said. He said he plans to shine a light on the issues and put pressure on the company to fix any health and safety issues.

Town Councilor Cindi Lloyd told residents they need to be documenting everything via video and that they need to “drill down on what else is lingering.” She wants to help get city departments back out to the complex if necessary. She added that the residents might be right — that the apartment might not be worth what they’re paying.

“It’s not about what it’s worth in your mind,” Lloyd said. “It’s about the market.”

As she spoke to residents, the lights in the kitchen flickered and went out. They came back on a few seconds later.

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