Jiahui Hu

Residents of Church Street South — a debilitated housing complex on track for demolition — have complained about their living conditions for nearly a decade. Recently, their cause was taken up by distinguished Elm City attorney David Rosen LAW ’69, who has chosen to file a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the residents.

Rosen chose to file the suit after receiving an increasing number of requests from Church Street South residents for representation. Rosen said this suit could be one of the most impactful of his career. The conditions of the city’s low-income housing have been publicly criticized since the summer, when the New Haven Legal Assistance Association filed housing code violations against Northland Investment Corporation, the owners of Church Street South. Over 300 families live in Church Street South, and many could become plaintiffs.

“Part of the point of enforcing the law is to encourage other people to obey the law,” Rosen said. “We certainly hope that we can not only help people in Church Street South, but create incentives for other landlords to do the right thing.”

Rosen, who has represented clients before the Supreme Court, draws his experience from over 30 years of practice. During this time, Rosen has filed multiple housing-related lawsuits, including several on the grounds of unsafe conditions and disability discrimination.

Though Rosen said his firm has not settled on the specific legal arguments they will use in court, he said they have many options. Rosen said Church Street South residents are entitled to protections under several federal laws, state codes and legal precedents. The most fundamental of these legal principles is that landlords must provide decent, safe and sanitary living conditions, Rosen added.

“The situation there is unacceptable,” said Rhonda Siciliano, a spokeswoman for the New England Region of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Everyone is in agreement that the property is obsolete.”

Former residents of the complex claimed the mold in their units gave them chronic illnesses in the complaint NHLAA filed on their behalf. Other complaints cite structural damage and leaking ceilings in the complex.

Representatives from Northland did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

City officials, HUD and Northland have overseen the relocation of residents whose homes have become too dangerous to live in, said Siciliano.

A former resident of Church Street South — who chose to remain anonymous because Northland cautioned residents against speaking to the press — said she was moved out last month because the concrete stairs leading to her unit were in danger of collapsing. After she left, she said, inspectors found mold growing behind her washing machine.

The former resident said Northland has been slow to address maintenance complaints in the complex because the residents are from low-income backgrounds. She said she hopes the public attention Church Street South is now getting will make the landlords more responsive.

Siciliano said HUD aims to move families currently housed in hotels into permanent residences by Thanksgiving. The eventual goal is for all residents of Church Street South to be permanently relocated within the next year.

HUD inspects public housing at a frequency determined by the Uniform Physical Condition Standards score, which measures homes’ safety, Siciliano said. Housing complexes with scores below 70 are inspected annually until they exceed this threshold. Landlords are also required to certify to HUD that the apartments are in “decent, safe and sanitary conditions,” every month.

Siciliano said Church Street South often scores below 70. The complex received a score of 63 in 2007, followed by a score of 52 in 2008 and a score of 68 in 2010, Siciliano said.

In 2013, though, Church Street South’s scores plummeted to 26. HUD gave Northland a list of repairs to perform in the complex. In the building’s follow-up inspection in September of that year, Church Street South received a score of 62.

Following inspections, property owners are required to rectify any issues that are discovered within 72 hours of the inspection. Each year, Siciliano said, Northland certified that they had done so.

The Church Street South apartments received a score of 81 last October. But when New Haven city officials conducted their own inspection of 60 of the units in February as part of a routine housing code compliance sweep, around 50 units failed the inspections, City Hall spokesman Laurence Grotheer said, adding that this prompted the city to conduct further investigations.

In August, city engineers found potentially dangerous structural inadequacies in the complex’s buildings.

Grotheer stressed the city’s frustration with Northland and the mayor’s concern for the tenants, given the unhealthy conditions of their homes.

The anonymous former resident, who currently lives in a hotel room with her three children, said it is difficult to find a new apartment while holding down a job.

“It’s stressful not being in my own home,” the former resident said.

Church Street South residents who have been relocated have also been provided with a list of potential new homes. But, the former resident said she is hesitant to move her children into any of these new homes because they are in areas with similarly high rates of drug activity as Church Street South.

HUD has notified Northland that they were in violation of the terms of their $3 million federal rental subsidy, Siciliano said, adding that their subsidy will be given to another Connecticut property owner in the state, who will permanently house Church Street South’s residents.

She added that residents who do not want to live in the newly subsidized housing will be given Housing Choice Vouchers to finance homes of their choosing. Residents do not have the flexibility to choose the temporary housing they currently reside in, she added.

Northland has owned Church Street South since 2008.

Correction, Oct. 28: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that attorney David Rosen had already filed a lawsuit on behalf of Church Street South residents. In fact, the lawsuit has not yet been filed. The headline of the article has been altered to reflect this change.