Growing up the grandchild of a building superintendent in the Bronx, Rafael Ramos has always been aware of the impact of housing on people’s lives. Now, as the Deputy Director of Housing Code Enforcement in New Haven, Ramos has made it his life’s mission to rescue Elm City tenants living in squalor.
The rooming house at 73 Whitney Avenue is one of the last derelict places in New Haven. It leans precariously over the dead neon sign and papered-over windows of Jackee’s Blues Café. Before the door was padlocked and boarded up, someone always seemed to be lurking behind the plate glass no matter what time of night I came to visit my boyfriend, who lived in the building next door. The number of people who paid $15 a night for a place at 73 Whitney varied, but on October 27, 2005, 24 of New Haven’s most transient residents were settling in for the evening when Charlie, the property manager, finally turned on the furnace.
This should have been good news. Charlie was almost two weeks late on his promise to heat the building. But instead of providing a welcome respite from the cold, the furnace filled the basement with black smoke–and the rest of the building with deadly levels of carbon monoxide. One woman was hospitalized with dizziness and vomiting. The rest of the residents — many of them black, some of them obviously mentally ill, all of them hard up — might have envied her as they gathered in the alley next to the building. As the temperature continued to fall, a hospital bed was preferable to the streets, and even though Fire Marshal Joe Cappucci set up fans and opened windows to clear out the gas, the residents could not return to 73 Whitney that night. Daniel Izzo of the Red Cross promised the tenants short-term food and shelter. But after the money for emergency motel rooms was gone, it wasn’t clear where the building’s residents would go.
It was around this time that Rafael Ramos showed up. The Deputy Director for Housing Code Enforcement isn’t technically responsible when a fire or a furnace malfunction makes people temporarily homeless. But on that night he was the only person who could give the residents of 73 Whitney some idea of what would happen to them next, and what help they could expect. Rafael was wearing the closest thing he had to a uniform, the crush hat, rumpled sweater and corduroy pants he wears to inspections and business meetings alike. He looked more like a luckier version of one of the tenants than any kind of official. But he is a big man who uses his height to lean over desks, conference tables and other people in a manner somewhere between friendly and intimidating. When he stepped into the alley, even the people impatient for their turn to run inside and grab their things gathered around him to listen.
“After the first few days, [the Livable City Initiative] and the property owners will make sure you have a place to go,” he told them. “You will not be on the streets.” A police bus pulled up to take everyone to the Econo Lodge, and gradually, the fire trucks, Hazardous Materials vehicle and Red Cross van cleared out of the street. Rafael probably could have gone home when the bus arrived, but he stayed on anyway, answering the residents’ questions and giving them business cards. “You can call me any time,” he told everyone.
It’s hard to find a time in Rafael’s life when he hasn’t been concerned with other people’s housing.
“My grandmother was the super of a 60-family building on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx,” he told me. “She had to respond to tenants and the landlord. She didn’t speak English, so we had to speak for her. There were 30 families on the left, 30 families on the right. They were mostly Irish and Jewish. The job was my uncle’s, but he was so negligent that she took it over.” Rafael’s job wasn’t limited to translation. As soon as they were 10 or 11, Rafael and his siblings pitched in on all the building’s repairs and maintenance.
“I remember the owner knocking on the door with a bag labeled Asbestos Insulation. And he’d say, ‘Señora, fix the boiler.’ And he’d give us a trowel, and we’d do it, no masks or anything.
“We would mop the hallways, change the light bulbs, change the washers. From a light bulb, you learn to change a light fixture. We used to play on the pipes like monkey bars, so we knew from a very young age what all the pipes did. It’s a training exercise for plumbers now — it’s called closing the loop.”
His brothers put that expertise to work when they founded their own plumbing company. Rafael worked for them until he decided to take a two-year course in construction-cost estimating at Manhattan Technical Institute. His marriage to a woman who grew up in New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood brought him from New York to Connecticut, and his MTI certificate got him his first job in his new city.
“I got one job — came to New Haven, got off the train, I knew no one,” Rafael said. “I came to the financial center, where there was a 60-foot hole in the ground and a trailer … When [the construction workers] poured the last slab on the 36th floor, I got laid off. I wasn’t a union employee.” He decided to go back to school, this time at Southern Connecticut State University.
It was an introductory course in public health that helped Rafael make the connection between buildings and the lives people lead inside them. The practicality of public-health work suited his temperament. “I knew I didn’t want to become a researcher, I wasn’t going to do epidemiology,” he told me. “I’m more of a hands-on person. I got bored very easily.” And with public health, he realized that “you do get to be an agent of change.”
After graduation, Rafael worked as a lead inspector in Bridgeport, but found he was more interested in the wide range of issues covered by the Housing Code and the wider range of powers Housing Code Inspectors have to address them. Since he arrived at New Haven’s Livable City Initiative, the agency in charge of removing blighted housing, increasing homeownership and enforcing the city’s Housing Code, Rafael has worked to, as he puts it, “make sure people have the social, political and environmental conditions to live the healthiest lives possible.”
Seventy-three Whitney is one of the buildings in New Haven where Rafael has often noticed the absence of those conditions.
Tony Mihalakos, the owner, won’t speak to the press any more (he refused multiple requests for interviews during the original reporting of this story), so it’s hard to know what really happened, but Rafael believes Mihalakos bought the building for a dollar in a 1976 city sale. Mihalakos has been running it as a rooming house ever since. It’s only in the last decade that the building acquired its present bad reputation. Lou Naclerio, the city’s relocation agent, told me ruefully that he’d placed some of 73 Whitney’s current residents there because he believed it was a safer, cleaner alternative to some of the city’s worst housing.
In the early ’90s, Rafael made Mihalakos replace the building’s windows, but as the physical plant deteriorated, so did the atmosphere inside. 73 Whitney became a haven for crack dealing and prostitution, and the site of a number of assaults and attempted murders. In recent years the threat had diminished; the only real risk passersby faced was the residents, who begged for money up and down the block. But on July 12, 2005, the building failed the inspection required of all licensed rooming houses. Mihalakos refused to comply with the changes LCI asked him to make, and failed another inspection on August 19. Rafael had him served with a list of 82 Housing Code violations on September 21, including:
-Paragraph 302(a). Repair holes and repaint walls.
-Paragraph 309. Rid apartment of vermin infestation.
-Paragraph 309. Rid apartment of rodent infestation.
-Paragraph 302 (j). Rooms in apartment were in a filthy condition. Take measures to eliminate this condition.
-Paragraph 302(a). Correct condition causing ceiling to bulge.
-Paragraph 302(a). Remove and replace rotted floor boards.
Tony Mihalakos had made no visible efforts to fix any of these problems by October 27. He had, however, sold the building for a sum reported to be close to a million dollars.
Seventy-three Whitney was the first thing on Rafael’s mind when I met him at his office a week later. “That building ruined my weekend,” he groused, sorting through the papers on one of his three desks. “I had plans for Friday night.” Every one of the 17 people he supervises seemed to have a question for him. Carlos Eyzaguirre had an update about a cease-and-desist order on Sylvan Avenue, Scott Sheely lined up behind him with paperwork for a 3:00 PM meeting with Mihalakos and his lawyer, and Marta Pabon, Rafael’s administrative assistant, ran back and forth to take dictation and deliver files.
The office was barely big enough for me, Rafael and whoever else was there at the moment, but Rafael introduced me to everyone who came by and apologized every time he stepped over my feet. None of the chairs matched, and the collection of plaques praising Rafael for leadership and service, the five badges lined up along the top of a bulletin board, and a long-dead electrical Zen-style fountain abandoned in pieces on top of the dented filing cabinet seemed ready to fall on anyone who moved around the room too cavalierly. John Coltrane, Mayor John DeStefano and Geronimo’s warriors stared down at me from their places on his wall.
Even if it caused a mid-week administrative disaster, it seemed that Rafael’s weekend at 73 Whitney had been productive. He’d gone back on Friday with Mike Rispoli, the plumbing and heating inspector who would have to approve the furnace before the residents could return.
“[Mihalakos] tells Mike ‘It’s taken care of,'” Rafael said, his voice tinged with both anger and amusement. “And there was cement around the two chamber doors. I tell him to fire it up, and when I come back, the basement’s full of smoke. I open it up and start tapping on the smoke pipe, and it’s full of soot. The pipe for the hot water, my hand went right through it.” The pictures Mike and Rafael took that afternoon show reddish hunks of metal that look nothing like a furnace.
Even when he isn’t trapped in a basement somewhere, Rafael can still go an entire day without a break. It’s partially his fault — Rafael gives everyone his cell phone number and there are remarkably few people who hesitate to take advantage of it.
During a meeting at the Housing Authority between 10:00 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., his phone rang five times. First was a doctor from the Hill Health Center reporting a rodent infestation — he was treating a patient for a rat bite. Next, the Department of Children and Families called in a code violation, and Elaine rang with a question about an inspection she was doing. Marta called when a lawyer for one of the 73 Whitney Avenue tenants showed up at LCI a day earlier than he was expected. Finally, another agent reported from Edgewood Avenue. Rafael answered all their calls immediately, and scribbled down a page of notes on a legal pad he’d purloined from someone else’s desk. Pat Miller, the Housing Authority’s Service Center Director with whom Rafael was ostensibly meeting, didn’t particularly seem to mind.
“He’s passionate for what he does,” she told me during one of his phone breaks. “And in this kind of business, where you’re dealing with people’s lives, you have to be passionate. He said, ‘Someone called me at three in the morning,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Who’s up at three in the morning?’ I’d be underneath my covers.”
New Haven is one of the only cities that responds to heating complaints 24 hours a day, but this policy can be a strain on the inspectors who answer those calls. Rafael may be an expert on the city’s 55,000 rental housing units, but it doesn’t mean he can make all of the repairs they require over the course of a winter.
As a result, he was looking for a company that could commit to making emergency repairs for the city. “We put this out to bid last year and didn’t get anyone,” he explained.” We need someone who knows how to prime gas furnaces, who knows how to prime oil furnaces, who can troubleshoot. Know what the most common problem is with furnaces? The nut that splices the wires becomes loose, and the thermostat is up to 80 degrees but it’s still not working. I can go around and do those all night and not get home, especially on the first night when the weather hits zero.”
Cold affects not just physical but mental health. “By February, you’ve exhausted all your subsidies for oil, by February the weather gets unbearable, by February, the ground is really frozen. That and March with the wind. Around the holidays, it’s more emotional. We don’t want anyone to be cold over the holidays. I need reliable numbers because this is two or three in the morning. I can’t talk to a machine at two or three in the morning.”
Connecticut General Statute 19a-109 empowers housing inspectors to order the arrest of landlords who let their buildings get below 65 degrees. It’s a nice bit of leverage, but a landlord who is already in jail or paying fines is likely to be more concerned about his own situation than about that of his tenants. It is equally difficult to persuade landlords to fix the heat in situations where there’s been a bank foreclosure or — as was the case with 73 Whitney — the owner has sold the building. Contracting out repairs would ensure that even if Rafael was awakened by late-night heating calls, he could head back to bed instead of heading out with a tool kit.
The same week in August 2005 that Tony Mihalakos lost his license to operate a rooming house, New Haven’s Board of Aldermen approved a law intended to make the Livable City Initative’s workload more manageable, and to prevent buildings like 73 Whitney from falling into utter disrepair. As March 28, 2006, all New Haven landlords — not just those operating unusual buildings like rooming houses — will have to pass annual inspections in order to stay in business. If they fail, they’re financially responsible for fixing the problems that inspectors discover, and for providing their tenants with adequate housing during the 30 days they have to make repairs. Under the old system, Housing Code Inspectors often didn’t get called in until a building had significantly deteriorated. In some cases, they didn’t get called at all.
“The problem with being complaint-driven,” Rob Smuts, Mayor John DeStefano’s deputy chief of staff, told me, “is a lot of people who are subjected to slum housing are afraid to make calls.” They may be illegal immigrants, worried that any contact with the authorities could lead to deportation, or afraid of repercussions from their landlords. (One of the items on Pat Miller’s agenda was finding a new apartment for a tenant who was being sexually harassed by her landlord.) Moving to a proactive system will, Smuts explained, “give us regular access to the buildings instead of just responding to complaints.” Inspectors will be able to either force negligent landlords to reform or put them out of business before they inflict any real harm on their tenants.
But Rafael supports the law not simply because it will probably make his job easier. Licensing all landlords and performing regular inspections shifts LCI’s strategy to an approach similar to the one Rafael learned in his public health classes at Southern. “I’m very excited about the new licensing ordinance,” he said. “We license people to carry a gun, we license people to have a dog, we license people because we want them to be in keeping with the health and safety of other folks.”
The former residents of 73 Whitney Avenue will not benefit from the new round of inspections that began in March. Though Rafael told me that there were certainly places for the residents at other buildings with better physical conditions and services like counseling and referrals, he didn’t sound confident that all of them would be able to adapt to new housing.
“There’s the Fellowship Program, there’s 52 Howe, there’s the Salvation Army,” he said. “A lot of places don’t tolerate 24-hour drug activity, bringing your friends in, so some of them will be unrelocatable. Some will wind up on the street, it’s inevitable. Some don’t have an income. Some because of their drug addiction will never pay rent. You have to have some kind of income — Department of Social Services, Social Security, Disability. There are six or seven people we’re concerned about because they have mental illness. But the rest will have to finally get themselves together.”
There was one final thing Rafael could do for the residents of 73 Whitney before they had to begin that transition. Because they were homeless as a result of Mihalakos’s negligence, he was responsible for relocating his former tenants, and Rafael had scheduled a meeting to remind Mihalakos of his obligations. I caught a glimpse of the landlord on his way in to the conference room, and almost felt sorry for him. A short, heavy guy in blue slacks and a white button-down shirt open too far at the neck, with his thinning hair plastered to his scalp, Mihalakos could hardly hold his own against Rafael, who stood a good foot taller than him, and was nattily (if uncharacteristically) outfitted for the day in a dark suit and crisp tie.
But it turned out that Mihalakos had already started shipping his tenants off to other places, giving them rent money once they’d found new apartments or rooms. Seven of the people were gone already, and Mihalakos estimated that four or five more people would move out of the Econo Lodge by the end of the week.
The meeting with Mihalakos ended at 4:00 p.m., and most people who had made it through the day on only a cup of coffee and a buttered muffin might have considered at least breaking for a late lunch. But one of Rafael’s inspectors had a report that the electrical grid for the hallway and emergency lights at 123 Pendelton Street still hadn’t been fixed a month after the first complaint. The building is one of 23 New Haven properties owned by a rental company called Preperty, and Rafael had worked himself into a mood by the time he pulled into the company’s parking lot on Howe Street.
“I’ll put [the residents of 123 Pendelton Street] in a hotel, preferably the Omni, at your expense,” Rafael berated the building’s owner, sounding positively excited at the thought. “I’ll sit a fire truck out in front all night and you can pay for it.”
Rafael found his way to Pendelton Street immediately after issuing his warning, intent on making it good as soon as possible. When he arrived, the light on the first floor was out and the emergency lights hadn’t turned on automatically, but when he pressed the button to turn them on, they lit up the stairwell. The tenant who’d let Rafael into the building disappeared into his apartment to get a fresh light bulb, and when Rafael stood on the banister post to test the socket, the new bulb worked just fine. Rafael got on the phone immediately.
“My strongest apologies,” he told the property manager when she picked up. “The bulbs are burned out in building B, and it’s only on the 2nd and 1st floors. There’s a tenant who called me who said that the lights are going out and this has been happening a lot. Please give your boss my strongest apologies.” He paused, but only for a moment. “You owe the guy in 2B a light bulb.