Ngan Vu

Alders and city representatives convened for hours on Thursday to discuss the concentration of large-scale landlords in New Haven’s affordable housing market.

The City Services and Environmental Policy Committee hosted the discussion, which was the first of two planned workshops on the topic. In a letter addressed to Board of Alders President Tyisha Walker-Myers, three alders — Ward 9 Alder Charles Decker GRD ’19, Ward 3 Ron Hurt and Ward 28 Alder Jill Marks — called for a discussion on what they described as the “large and apparently increasing proportion” of affordable housing stock owned by large-scale property management companies.

“To assess the existing affordable housing stock, we need to understand who owns what,” the alders wrote.

When asked on Thursday whether the corporate structures of large-scale landlords were a challenge for the initiative, Rafael Ramos, who is the Livable City Initiative (LCI)’s deputy director of housing code enforcement, said “it is an issue because I cannot arrest a [limited liability company (LLC)].”

Ramos said that a loophole in state law can allow landlords to shirk their duties and avoid penalties for violations of the city’s housing code, which lays out standards for housing conditions and processes for interventions. For example, he said, a landlord can register as a LLC in Connecticut but can make a referral to Delaware, which does not require a named principal. If that landlord committed a violation which was criminally punishable under the housing code, Ramos said his hands would be tied. “Although I know it’s you,” Ramos said, “I can’t arrest you.”

LCI Deputy Frank D’Amore, who spoke at the workshop along with Ramos and Fair Rent Commission Director Otis Johnson, suggested lobbying the state legislature to pass a law requiring landlords to register with the state. Business owners are already required to do so, he said, though property owners are not.

D’Amore noted that the city already has legislation on the books that would require landlords to register with the city using a name and contact information. This legislation, he said, had fallen to the assessor’s office to enact, leaving it largely unaddressed.

“It was a huge, huge task,” D’Amore said, “and it pretty much fell by the wayside.”

D’Amore told the alders that reenacting that legislation could be an option, but that it would likely be a challenge. “How do you extract that information?” he asked. “How do you really get that information?”

A number of the alders mentioned constituents who feared landlord retaliation for filing complaints. Ward 20 Alder Delphine Clyburn told the story of one woman who she said lived in an apartment in which “a third of her door was off” and built up with blankets. Clyburn wanted to call the LCI, she said, but the woman told her that she had been homeless in the past and did not want to cause trouble with her landlord. “I didn’t push it because I didn’t want to hurt her; I wanted to help her,” Clyburn said, noting that she continued working with the woman to find her another place to live.

Clyburn focused much of her criticism on the large-scale property management companies, which she described as causing more problems for her constituents than “mom-and-pop” landlords.

“These landlords are getting away, and they’re making good money,” Clyburn said. “I think we have to really go into their pockets,” she added.

But Ramos cautioned that it would be difficult for the LCI to enact different penalties for different types of landlords — such as raising fees for large-scale property management companies. “Whatever we impose on A, we have to impose on B,” he said.

And in a brief but tense exchange, Ramos and Ward 3 Alder Hunt debated whether the large-scale landlord issue was a “crisis,” as Hunt termed it.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a big crisis if you don’t have the data,” Ramos said.

The alders did ask the city representatives to provide data before the second workshop discussion, which will take place in November. Initially, alders pressed for complaint information by property owner. Ramos explained, however, that the LCI catalogues complaints by address, not by property owner. He said that the city could provide the committee with the number of complaints, the type of violation for each complaint, its address and whether the complaint had been resolved or not — information which will be broken down by ward.

In their initial letter, the three alders had named Pike International and Mandy Management as two examples of large-scale landlords in New Haven. Representatives for each company did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.

Throughout the discussion, alders and the city employees alike suggested other possible remedies for tenants facing problems with landlords in the Elm City, both large-scale and not. A number of alders mentioned the importance of educating tenants on their rights and how to protect themselves against unfair landlords; Ward 21 Alder Steve Winter ’11 spoke specifically about educating tenants about putting money in escrow accounts to protect against landlord retaliation.

Another recurrent theme was the idea of a publicly available database of complaints against certain landlords, information which the LCI representatives said was already available to the public if renters called the city, but which was not consolidated.

The second workshop will take place on Nov. 14.

Talia Soglin | talia.soglin@yale.edu