Signing the lease or sublease for your first apartment, be it a snazzy studio or a room in a dilapidated house, is a rite of passage. I remember the day two years ago, when my friends and I struggled to ignite the pilot light on our hot water heater, only to discover that the tenants who had vacated our house before us had left their bills unpaid and let every utility in the building lapse. I learned a lot of things from that summer, and from the other apartments my friends have rented since, but the most important lesson was this: A good landlord is just as important as any other feature of your new home, if not more so.
I’m hopeful that the new licensing regime introduced this week by New Haven’s Livable City Initiative will help more city landlords to become good at their jobs. The law is simple: If you’re the landlord of a building with at least two units, and you don’t live in one of those units, every two years you have to pass an inspection to keep renting out those apartments. The idea is to catch problems before they get out of control and to stop landlords who are blatantly taking advantage of their renters. Under the new law, situations like the one reported in the New Haven Independent two weeks ago — where a Dwight Street landlord rented an unfinished basement apartment with a whole host of dangerous code violations to a group of immigrants and then started charging them extra for the utilities she’d told them were included in their rent — would never happen in the first place.
It’s understandable that irresponsible landlords don’t want to get caught, and that responsible ones don’t like the idea that they have to pay licensing fees because of the bad behavior of some of their counterparts. But when the bad apples are rotten enough to put the lives of many New Haven residents in danger, it’s time to recognize that removing slum conditions is a moral obligation.
Two examples in particular stand out in my mind. The first is “The Cage,” a building at 76 Sherman Ave. that used to be so bad that in 2004, when a fire started because of a gas leak from a recalled gas connector installed by an unlicensed contractor, not a single fire alarm went off. Everyone in the building might have died if not for a visitor who saw smoke and alerted the sleeping residents.
The second is closer to campus. I was on my way back from a study session in late October when I found that Whitney Avenue was blocked off by fire trucks, an ambulance, a hazardous materials vehicle and a Red Cross van. The super of 73 Whitney Ave. had turned out the furnace, but it had malfunctioned and filled the building with deadly levels of carbon monoxide. Again, if the furnace had kicked in later at night, when people were asleep, everyone would have died. The levels of carbon monoxide were so high that the apartments in the building next door had to be checked for contamination, too.
If the Livable City Initiative has to inspect every building in New Haven to guarantee that no one can be as recklessly, cruelly negligent as the landlords of 76 Sherman Ave. and 73 Whitney Ave., so be it. Good landlords ought to be horrified at what their less responsible counterparts are doing, and they should support the inspections regime for practical reasons, too. First, the regular inspections may help landlords catch problems that their tenants don’t think to report, and diagnosing those problems early can prevent real damage to otherwise good housing. Second, shutting down bad landlords means that there will be potential renters looking for units offered by landlords with good reputations.
There is absolutely the possibility of delays, inefficiency and overworked inspectors, especially given that the new law covers 20,000 apartments that need to be inspected. But Andy Rizzo, the head of the Livable City Initiative, told aldermen on March 27 that one of his inspectors got through 72 units in a single day, a rate that suggests there shouldn’t be too many hold-ups.
At $75 to $375, the cost of a two-year license, it doesn’t have to be expensive to make a statement that life in New Haven is not cheap.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a senior in Silliman College. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.