Sunday, October 14, 2012

Landlords vs. Tenants

I've been waiting months for the new laws regarding blighted rental properties to take effect. Connecticut's new law (Sections 3 and 4 of HB 5319) became effective on October 1 and imposes harsher fines for landlords who refuse to clean up their properties, and places liens on the properties. It also establishes willful violation of blight regulations as a misdemeanor criminal offense. This is the part I like best--a slumlord who lives in Stamford and refuses to clean up his rental property in Waterbury can be forced to come here to be held accountable. Before this legislation, nothing could be done about that Stamford-based slumlord.

Today's Rep-Am had a very disheartening article related to this topic. Each municipality with an existing blight ordinance is required to update it to reflect the new laws. Waterbury's Board of Aldermen are dragging their heels on this, after being told by landlords that they shouldn't be held accountable for the messes created by their tenants.

There has been a growing tension between landlords and tenants in recent years. As cities have grown tougher on blight, landlords have begun fighting anti-blight ordinances.

Before any landlords get upset at what I'm writing, let me say that I know what they are talking about. I know there are bad tenants out there. I know there are tenants who will trash the apartment, rip out copper pipes, smash holes in the walls and doors, leave a foot-thick layer of dog feces and urine in the basement, pull ceiling fans out of the ceiling and claim it fell on them and injured them. I know there are tenants who leave behind furniture, clothing, garbage. I also know that in every case I know of a tenant trashing an apartment, the landlord never did any sort of background check before renting to them. I hope all landlords at least require a security deposit to pay for the cleanup. That's what a security deposit is for.

Landlords: if you know your tenant is trashing your property, if you are there regularly to clean up after them, REPORT THEM. Don't sit back and wait for the city to come after you. Be pro-active. If your property is blighted enough for the city to get involved, you should have done something about it long before the city noticed. If your tenant is creating blight on your property, call the Police Department at 203-574-6920 and ask for the Blight Enforcement & Control Division. If your tenant trashes your property and you don't take action, then you should expect to be held responsible.

My interpretation of the new state ordinance is that it is intended to target slumlords. "Willful violation" of anti-blight laws is very different from landlords who need help with bad tenants, with illegal dumping on their property, with lack of resources. The law is intended to target the landlords who just don't care.

Take, for example, the owner of 76 Oak Street. The property has fallen into a blighted state over the past five years, after having been acquired by someone in Stamford in 2006. I have been complaining about the blight for years, but because the owner is out of town, the city hasn't been able to do much.

This summer, a new tenant moved in and made an agreement with the landlord to clean up the property. The tenant came in with a machete, a weed whacker, and some friends and made huge progress in clearing out overgrown weeds and trees that had grown up through the fence and were leaning precariously over my garage. The next step was to haul away the mountain of debris that fills up a quarter of the back yard. The landlord suddenly reneged on his promise to pay the tenant for the labor and the cost of removing the debris. The tenant can't afford to haul away the debris on his own, so all cleanup work stopped. The tenant has also complained to the landlord about the tree branch that has fallen on the roof and appears to be causing the roof to leak, which in turn appears to have caused part of the second floor to collapse. The landlord refuses to do anything about the leaking roof.

There are a lot of bad landlords in my neighborhood. One neighbor has told us that the heat duct no longer goes to the second floor, and her landlord refuses to fix it. The neighbor also says that the landlord has threatened them with eviction if they complain to HUD.

One of the houses across the street has been owned by Abreu Realty since 2007. Until a few weeks ago, there was a massive dead tree in the front yard that made everyone nervous, wondering if someone would be killed by a falling branch. The landlord refused to get rid of the tree, saying it wasn't his responsibility. It took a lot of pressure, but the tree is now gone. Meanwhile, however, take a look at the some of rest of the property:

254 Wood Street

The gutter on the porch has foot-tall grass growing in it (or did before the cold weather started). The porch slats are broken and have been for years. The porch steps are slick with mold. What kind of tenant does the landlord think he will attract when the property looks like this? Why would a tenant care about keeping the property clean when the landlord clearly does not care about how it looks?

We absolutely need to have an ordinance making blight a criminal offense. I have seen first hand that the city can't enforce anti-blight laws if there are no real penalties involved. There are too many landlords that just don't care.

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