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Are CT fair rent commissions operating as planned?

Donna Curry, longtime resident of Wedgewood Apartments, points out the refrigerator lining that has worn off, often making it difficult to keep her food and perishables cold.
Tabius McCoy
/
CT Mirror
Donna Curry, longtime resident of Wedgewood Apartments, points out the refrigerator lining that has worn off, often making it difficult to keep her food and perishables cold. 

Fair rent commissions were created to help residents who feel their rent has been increased unreasonably, or are struggling with substandard apartment conditions. A family in Bloomfield said theirs isn't doing what it should be — and it could point to an enforcement issue.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Ginny Monk to discuss her article, “Are CT fair rent commissions effective? Bloomfield case tests limits,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, Ginny. Let's start by asking, what is a fair rent commission? And why has the legislature decided that towns with 25,000 residents or more should have them?

GM: The fair rent commission is a town body made up of volunteers, typically appointed by a mayor or first selectman, who can hear fair rent complaints. So if your rent goes up, and you don't think it's fair, you can take that to the Fair Rent Commission. They have the power to investigate that complaint, to hold hearings, they have subpoena powers, they can really dig into the market, the reason for the increase, and they can look at things like your housing conditions to say, you know, is the apartment worth this? Is the apartment safe? Can you increase rent if you aren't making repairs? So these are all questions they can ask. And then they can issue an order that the landlord and tenant both need to comply with. And the legislature expanded these in 2022, in part because of reports of rising rents. This is something we've continued to hear since the early days of the pandemic: rents are rising, and people can't keep up.

WSHU: So now let's talk about what you found in the Wedgewood housing complex in Bloomfield.

GM: The Wedgewood housing complex in Bloomfield, these tenants formed a tenant union in 2022. And since then, they've been going through several avenues, including complaining to the health department, complaining to the building department to the town and opening fair rent commission cases to try to get repairs done at their apartment. And there have been some questions about rent increases as well. But really central to their issue are the repairs and the conditions at their apartments.

WSHU: Your investigation finds that the problem might be the enforcement, which often includes repairs and the lowering of rent. What exactly did you find?

GM: Yeah, so this investigation particularly followed the case of an apartment complex in Bloomfield, Connecticut, where residents have been complaining to town officials, to the Fair Rent Commission, to their landlord for about two years and still are having problems with the conditions of their apartment. So sort of the question that we asked in this reporting process was, are these commissions working? If not, why not?

WSHU: So, what did you find? The complaints, including mold, peeling paint, and rent increases? Now, they took these complaints to the commission. What did the commission do with their complaints?

GM: The commission ordered a few fixes, some of which were done, and for a period of time, waived the rent until certain repairs were completed. The problem is that some of the issues that they complained about at the beginning that were part of their rent commission cases are ongoing. So, residents are still reporting problems with mold. Residents still can't use the pool, which is part of their lease and part of what they're paying for. So some things like that are continuing, and they're just not sure where to turn anymore.

WSHU: Now, why is enforcement an issue? The commission had rulings? Why is the follow-through not there?

GM: Yeah. So it's sort of a complicated question. Part of it goes back to the fact that a lot of these commissions across the state are fairly new. So after the 2022 laws passed, it took some time for them to get set up for them to get members in place and for them to start hearing cases. And these fair rent commission members are volunteers. So they have learning to do about what a fair rent commission is, and what their powers are. And, you know, there have been increasing numbers of questions about what are we supposed to do, particularly in some of these more complicated cases that deal with apartment conditions, if the landlord isn't complying with our orders.

WSHU: Some of those conditions violate the city ordinances, so why can't the city enforce those ordinances?

GM: The city has some powers to issue fines. It's not clear from my reporting why the city wouldn't make certain officials available for interviews. But we know that many towns across Connecticut have some of these remedies in the form of fines, which actually the state legislature last year increased the allowable amount for fines because of this problem because of repeat offenders who break housing law.

WSHU: Okay, what about the Department of Health? Could they not do something about this, because some of these are health issues, right?

GM: So the health department has been out to these apartments many, many times and has done investigations and issued findings, but residents say they're just not seeing the follow through. The health department will say, for example, the window needs to be fixed. Well, the windows are not fixed and no one is making the landlord do it.

WSHU: Now, what about elected officials? Did you talk to them? What can they do?

GM: There were a couple of city councilors out at the apartment complex on Friday, who say they're looking into the issue, trying to put some pressure on some of these town departments to go back out there to visit with residents again to see what's going on. One of them works in construction and had some concerns about mold, about some of the work that had been done at the apartments, and he actually repaired a window while he was out there.

WSHU: Wow. So in the meantime, what can tenants do? This law was passed with a lot of fanfare in 2022. And it was seen as the remedy to increase rents with fewer services being provided by landlords. We are where we are today.

GM: Yeah, so, I want to be clear. There are many cases where fair rent commissions have been helpful to tenants, particularly with rent increases. But sort of moving forward for the tenants in Bloomfield particularly, they're just continuing to talk to the counselors. They've reached out to some state representatives. They're really trying everything they can to get these repairs done because they don't feel safe in their housing.

WSHU: So, enforcement is a key.

GM: Right.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.