‘I regret it’: How asking for healthy housing ended in an eviction record for one New Haven family
For more than a decade, Juana Valle’s first-floor apartment in the Fair Haven neighborhood of New Haven was filled with warm memories —the birth of her youngest son, countless family get-togethers and more.
But earlier this year, she had to say goodbye. On a chilly afternoon, Valle walked through the apartment, making sure everything was ready to be placed in the U-Haul truck out front.
With her electricity shut off, Valle took advantage of the last bit of natural light. As she sorted through boxes and plastic bags, she stopped at her youngest son’s stuffed animals.
“My youngest son asked me why we had to leave. I tried to explain and he continued to ask why, ” Valle said as she recalled a conversation she had with her son earlier that day.
While she told her son the landlord wanted the unit back to make some repairs, her story is a bit more complex.
Valle and her family of six faced a no-fault eviction filing. Essentially, Valle never failed to pay rent and was a good tenant. But her lease was up, according to the eviction filing records, and in the state of Connecticut that’s grounds for an eviction if the landlord wants their unit back.
But Valle says it wasn’t that simple. She says she feels her landlord filed not one but two evictions to get back at her for pushing for repairs —in other words, a retaliatory eviction.
An eviction is considered retaliatory when a tenant in good faith tries to improve their housing conditions through things like submitting code violations to the city ororganizing with other tenants and then faces an eviction shortly after.
While there are some tenant protections in place to try to prevent retaliation, Connecticut housing advocates say they’re not enough. And Valle says her story is proof of that.
It all started one early morning when she was getting her family ready for the day.
“My son the night before had left his toys [on the living room floor]. And when I woke up there were rats surrounding his toys. And that was the last thing I could see,” Valle said in Spanish.
Valle had made several complaints to her landlord about a leak on her bathroom ceiling, kitchen fixtures breaking and pests but repairs didn’t come quick enough.
“[That day] I said I can’t wait anymore, I have to do something for my family,” she added.
Valle filed a complaint with Livable City Initiative, a neighborhood-focused government agency in New Haven that manages housing code complaints among other things.
“I asked if I was going to get in trouble for filing a complaint and [the city] told me not to worry that it was against the law for a landlord to retaliate,” Valle said.
And that’s currently true under state law. But that protection is only afforded to tenants for six months.
During the city’s first inspection in 2020, documents show the city’s housing inspector found nearly 20 violations, including the ones Valle said she complained about to her landlord. LCI gave the landlord a recommended time frame to fix each violation, ranging from seven hours to 21 days. But it took months to get all violations fixed.
Her landlord declined to comment on this story.
Valle said she thought after the first inspection, it was the end of it.
But she would soon find out it was only the beginning.
Exhausting all available tenant resources
Shortly after Livable City Initiative got involved, Valle said her landlord increased her rent while the apartment was still in disrepair. Valle was advised to file a complaint with New Haven’s fair rent commission, a board that evaluates whether rent increases are fair based on several factors including the condition of the apartment.
While Valle waited for the commission to hear her complaint, her landlord moved to file the first of two evictions. When the commission finally heard her case, almost a year after she initially filed, Valle asked for the commission to give the landlord a cease and desist order to stop the pending eviction. But the commission at the time said that wasn’t under their jurisdiction, as the case was already pending in court, according to New Haven Independent. The commission has since changed its stance on hearing retaliation complaints, but this no longer helps Valle directly.
“I regret it. I regret complaining because I never thought the city would not do its job,” Valle said as she believed the city’s job should be to protect tenants.
Before she complained, she remembers a lot of Latino community members were scared for her. Now she understands, she said.
“They prefer to live in bad conditions because they know that the landlord will retaliate," Valle said. "People are scared to complain because they know the city isn’t doing anything."
By the time Valle was evicted, she had filed three complaints for repeat issues with Livable City Initiative over the span of a year, according to documents viewed by Connecticut Public. She was represented by a free lawyer through the state’s Right to Counsel program and had won her complaint before the city for an unjust rent hike. She leaned on the resources available to tenants dealing with negligent landlords, but still she feels it wasn’t enough.
One group rallying for stronger tenant protections is Connecticut Tenants Union. Luke Melonakos-Harrison, a tenant organizer, said as someone who helps tenants fight for housing justice, retaliatory evictions or the threat of them are very common.
“A retaliatory eviction just means the landlord doesn’t want to deal with you anymore. And it can be a legal eviction, where it’s actually going through the court process or it can be a 'soft eviction,' Melonakos-Harrison said. “It can be a drastic rent hike that your landlords know you can’t afford, that’s gonna force you out or even in some cases withholding services to such an extent that the conditions become unbearable and people feel compelled to move out.”
It’s no wonder that people are scared to speak out, he said, and having weak repercussions for landlords doesn’t make it any better.
Livable City Initiatives can fine a landlord if violations are found and they fail to make repairs in a timely manner. Up until recently, the fine was $250 per violation, but a new bill changed the fine to $2,000.
Nonetheless, Melonakos-Harrison says the complaint system is “woefully insufficient and difficult to access.”
Tenant Jessica Stamp agrees. She had to insist multiple times for Livable City Initiative (LCI) to help her address her complex’s condition.
Stamp lives at a 70-unit complex in West Haven and is a member of Blake Street Tenants Union. The union formed last year as tenants at the complex wanted to improve their living conditions.
Stamp said the first thing they did was submit their complaints to LCI —usually the first line of defense recommended to tenants dealing with a negligent landlord. The complaint included broken and missing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, loose electrical wires and more.
“We didn't know who that was, we didn't know what we were doing, or what we were filing, but everybody sent over whatever was wrong with our apartments,” Stamp said.
But she said getting an inspector out to the property was not easy. According to documents obtained by Connecticut Public, it took two weeks for an inspector to come to the property and over two months for the case to close. As a tenant union leader, Stamp says she now walks other tenants through the many hidden steps.
“At every point in the process, you have to be prepared to intervene and demand that they do what they need to do,” Stamp said.
If it’s one of the few resources that can help tenants, Stamps said it needs to be more efficient with more inspectors and better transparency.
“Who’s going to protect us if the city’s not going to?” Stamp said.
City officials respond
As of May, Livable City Initiative received nearly 6,000 housing code complaints in the last year, according to Executive Director Arlevia Samuel. But the agency only has 12 inspectors for a city with 140,000 residents, most of whom rent.
Keeping up with the demand in New Haven can be a challenge, Samuel said.
“I think if we were looking to hit 100% of all the rental units and get re-inspections done and rechecks done on time, we will probably need about 20 inspectors,” Samuel added.
New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said he is hopeful future budgets could allow for that.
Even if everything ran smoothly, Samuel said the agency can only do so much.
“I think people's expectations exceed what we can actually do," Samuel said. "I mean, we have the laws in place, the ordinances and we have rules and regulations and we enforce them to say ‘this needs to be done.’ But we can't make anyone do anything. Our ultimate end game is it goes to the courts."
Once it reaches the courts, the agency can fine a landlord, but Samuel said even then that might not be enough.
“I mean, it's money, you pay a fine, you write it off in your taxes. So it's really not costing them anything. It's a slight inconvenience to go to court. But then they're mad for a minute and then are done in or out of it and continue business as usual,” she said.
Advocates, including Stamp, saidthere were several bills during this past legislative session in Connecticut that had potential to create change, including one that would increase protections against no-fault evictions, which during the pandemic saw an uptick. The proposal — sometimes referred to as good cause legislation — didn’t make it to its committee’s public hearing this session; a similar proposal failed in 2022, as well.
Connecticut wouldn’t be alone in expanding good cause legislation for renters. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, five states and several cities had good cause protections as of May 2022. Some are more strict than others. For example, in California renters statewide are protected against no-fault evictions, including renovations or repairs and some localities have even stricter requirements like Chula Vista.
While such protections don’t exist in New Haven, when asked what violations or repairs require a tenant to vacate according to Livable City Initiative, Samuel said it depends on the problem.But she said issues like pests, leaks or other cosmetic repairs — like in Juana Valle’s situation — usually don’t require that. But without legislation like good cause, there is no enforcement for landlords.
On her last night in her unit, Valle said she felt angry because it was clear she was destined to lose this fight from the start.
“Honestly, I know that the law is benefiting landlords. There are benefits for them, but none for us,” she said in Spanish, reflecting on the years-long battle to stay in her apartment.
But what hurt her the most was that her children were impacted, too. The evictions were not only filed against her and her husband, but against her two adult daughters who now have a stain on their rental record without ever renting a place of their own, Valle said.
“This has caused me so much anxiety because [the landlord] not only came for me but for my children, too,” Valle said.
Valle was joined that night by several members of Unidad Latina en Accion or United Latinos in Action (ULA), a pro-immigrant organization in New Haven. As some members packed the U-Haul with mattresses, stuffed animals and other belongings, others stood in front of her house, protesting and holding signs in both English and Spanish.
John Lugo leads ULA. He said Valle’s case is frustrating for the entire community.
“We're so upset that even when LCI came and they [did the] inspection, the landlord [is] using the information against the tenant,” Lugo said. ““What’s the point of fighting for your rights when the landlords are taking advantage of you?”
Nonetheless, Valle said she was focused on staying strong for her kids. As she headed to a new apartment, one that took months to find with a pending eviction on her record, she tried to stay positive.
“I know that as a mother I have to be strong," she said, "even when I don’t have any strength.”
In addition to her reporting for Connecticut Public, Camila Vallejo is a communication specialist for Princeton's Eviction Lab.