More CT cities are slowly adopting fair rent commissions after the new law
Implementation of a 2022 state law requiring 27 additional Connecticut cities to create fair rent commissions is in varying stages across the state, leaving some renters with unequal access to a means to protest rent increases.
The 2022 legislation requires towns with a population of 25,000 or more to adopt ordinances creating fair rent commissions by July 1, 2023. A group of townships missed the deadline, some passed the ordinance but the commissions have not yet met, and others have commissions that meet regularly.
Before the law was passed, there were committees in 25 cities.
Fair Rent Committees are municipal councils that listen to residents’ complaints about rent increases and other issues. They have the ability to conduct investigations, issue subpoenas, and issue warrants regarding landlord-tenant issues.
“This is a time when rents are rapidly escalating everywhere in the state, and there is no other way other than fair rent commissions for tenants to be able to raise equity issues,” said Ravi Podolsky, a housing attorney with Connecticut Legal Services. Podolsky is one of the attorneys who provides training throughout the state to new Fair Rent Commissioners and city employees.
Officials and experts said the committees are receiving more attention because of rising rents and a lack of other available housing. The growing tenant union movement in Connecticut has also drawn more attention to the issue, with tenants organizing and spreading the word about committees.
Overall, Podolsky said, most towns were willing to pass ordinances. Many of the ordinances she issued did not send to the Department of Housing, so they were not included in the state’s online information, he said.
“The resistance has been relatively small, and I think that underscores the fact that people in the cities recognize the need,” Podolsky said.
What do cities do?
Many are in the early stages of appointing committee members or have just held appointment meetings. For example, Middletown and Cheshire held member appointment meetings in early September. Waterbury is among those that have already had commissioners appointed.
Middletown passed its ordinance in June and appointed members in early September. Rep. Quentin “Q” Williams, a Middletown resident, proposed the legislation in 2022 and said in an interview with the Middletown Press that he wants the city to be one of the first to start with the commission. Williams died in a car accident in January.
Hamden passed a new Fair Rent Commission ordinance in January. The committee created under the previous decree did not meet for years before meeting again last fall.
However, tenants complained at a recent meeting that their landlords were not following the commission’s orders. The commissioners said this should be reported to the city so action can be taken.
Other cities missed the July 1 deadline to adopt the ordinance. Greenwich hit a snag because the city representatives meeting in Greenwich did not approve the ordinance, even though the Board of Selectmen had passed it, Podolski said.
Greenwich’s RTM has a Fair Rent Commission Act on its agenda for September 18.
The Wallingford City Council did not pass an ordinance to create a Fair Rent Commission when it was brought before the council in June. The meeting was sparsely attended and needed one additional vote to pass. The matter will go back to committee and will likely reach the full council again in the fall, City Council President Vinny Cervone said.
Representative Craig Fishbein, one of the council members, voted against creating the ordinance. He said he has made proposals since then, and if they are implemented, he would likely vote yes.
“I’m concerned about the monster we’re making, or the state is making us make,” Fishbein, a Wallingford Republican, said at a meeting.
He said he would like tenants in government housing to be able to submit complaints and language to determine what the commission should do if there is an issue with concurrent jurisdiction with the housing court regarding apartment conditions.
If such changes are implemented, Fishbein said, he would vote in favor of the ordinance.
Tenant experience with fair rent commissions varies widely from city to city, said Luke Mylonakos Harrison, organizer and vice president of the Connecticut Tenants Union.
Melonakos-Harrison added that in addition to the different implementation phases across the state, there are also significant differences in how the committees operate from city to city.
Some are more willing to look into complaints about housing conditions than others, he said. They each have different strategies for running meetings, such as the amount of time they give people to talk about their issue.
“It really depends on how a particular municipality manages it,” he said.
Kelly DeMatteo, president of the Connecticut Apartment Association and vice president of property management for Trio Properties, said she had only been offered the Fair Rent Commission a few times but that the process was confusing.
“I had an experience where they didn’t know what they were supposed to do,” DiMatteo said. “And they would ask me, ‘What’s unique?’
She added that she is also concerned that the legal guidelines are not clear enough to guide the committees, and that they may not take the market and real costs of being a landlord into account.
“I think it was brought up too quickly, and I think the ground rules need to be set,” DiMatteo said. “I think we’re here and ready to come to the table to make suggestions about what that would look like.”
Kevin Santini, owner and property manager of Santini Villa Apartments and The Grand Lofts and a member of the apartment association, is a member of Vernon’s Fair Rent Committee. He said he was concerned about property rights issues and that the government would tell people how much they would receive for their property. Market rates should be a key consideration when determining whether a rent is fair, he said.
“Looking at it from the landlord’s perspective, I may be the landlord’s enemy in some of these cases,” Santini said. “On the one hand, I’m a big believer in private property rights, but I’m also a believer in doing your job and doing it well.”
While the law does not include specific details on how meetings will be run, it does give 13 factors that commissioners must use to determine whether a rent increase is fair. These include rents in other areas, sanitary conditions of the home, number of bathrooms and bedrooms, services provided, whether repairs have been made, the amount of taxes, whether the accommodations are in compliance with city and state law, and damage to the home. Ownership by the tenant, among other factors.
Landlords and committee members expressed concerns that fair rent committees would primarily deal with issues related to conditions. It’s a common misconception that panels can’t address habitability issues, said Sarah White, an attorney with the Connecticut Fair Housing Center who works with Podolsky to provide the training.
Commissions can request a health inspection from local inspectors, require certain repairs or reduce rents if repairs are not made, White said. But several city officials said that if a complaint is only about conditions and not about a rent increase, they will often try to mediate it or direct complainants to local code enforcement.
Wildaliz Bermudez, executive director of the New Haven Fair Rent Commission, said the commission tries to focus on cases of excessive rent increases, but that doesn’t stop it from addressing the circumstances in some cases.
“What happens sometimes is we get cases where it’s a combination of excessive rental fees and there have been deferred repairs that are causing unsafe and unhealthy housing conditions,” Bermudez said.
The Connecticut state committees were highly organized as a group. They communicated frequently and had a statewide network, Podolsky said. He hopes they build that network back up.
“We started from scratch in a lot of ways,” White said.
As rents rose during the early stages of the pandemic, some cities boosted existing fair rent commissions.
West Hartford had an ordinance for a committee, but it did not meet for many years. Experts said this is the case for many commissions because rents stabilized in the state during the housing crisis.
“We knew and expected that coming in and out of COVID, there would be a rent increase,” West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor said.
Some of the most successful committees in Connecticut, according to housing attorneys, often have a city employee serve on the committee rather than relying solely on volunteer committee members.
In Stamford, this is the job of the Social Services Department.
Sharona Cowan, director of social services, said she tries to mediate issues before they go before the full committee and is often successful. She said the committee has seen more cases in recent years. They existed long before the 2022 legislation and did not stop meeting occasionally when rents stabilized.
“I talked to a few other cities and told them if you have an opportunity to get hired, please do it,” Cowan said. “You may be more exhausted than you realize—you have to really listen, gather documents, negotiate, and mediate back and forth. If you have two of those running at the same time, you’re busy.”
New Haven’s Bermudez operates a small office dedicated entirely to Fair Rent Complaints. She added that from 2015 until about a year and a half ago, the authority had about 52 complaints on average per year.
Since Bermudez took office, their number has approached 300. She works to mediate issues and make sure city residents are aware of the committee.
Bermudez believes that since the end of coronavirus-era tenant protections, more people who could face eviction are looking for help. She said many are facing rent increases of up to 75%.
“Meeting people where they are is so important,” she said. “Being proactive about this is very important in the same way that tenant union organizers get out and talk to people.”
Although commissions are a good tool, they are not the complete solution to addressing excessive rents, Podolsky said.
Milonakos-Harrison pointed to what tenants union organizers have said about the need for annual rent caps, which were proposed during the last legislative session but never made it out of committee. The condo association’s Santini said the market will correct itself if more housing is built.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Podolsky said. “Fair rent commissions are not magic solutions to rapidly rising rents. They are a mechanism to give people opportunity, and hopefully give people success, but they will not address the fact that rents are rising rapidly.