Yale Daily News

New Haven legislators have given the green light to a policy that would add transparency to the city’s rental ownership process.

The Board of Alders Legislation Committee voted unanimously in support of the policy at their Tuesday night meeting, and it will now move to the full Board of Alders. Arlevia Samuel, executive director of New Haven’s Livable City Initiative, or LCI, told the alders present that her staff regularly needs a responsible individual to contact when there are problems with a rental property. The LCI is the agency responsible for enforcing New Haven’s housing code and implementing housing and public improvement programs, so they regularly contact property owners about code violations and housing emergencies. However, their job isn’t easy. Many buildings are owned by corporations and do not list real people on their applications for a residential rental business license. Instead, LCI staff have to call business after business, struggling to find the appropriate person. Samuel proposed an amendment to the city’s Code of Ordinances that would require rental properties to list a “natural person” on their applications.

This change is important so that “in case of emergencies, displacements, issues, items, we can have a direct person to reach out to that we can contact without going through different numbers, voice machines, messages and going on and on and not being able to get a person,” Samuel told the committee.

Under the proposed amendment, applicants for residential rental property licenses would have to list the name, phone number and address of a “natural person” — that is, a “living human being” at least 18 years old — who resides in Connecticut. That natural person could be the owner of the property or an agent who could act on their behalf. In either case, the amendment would prevent LCI inspectors from having to call phone number after phone number until they find a real person.

Mark Wilson, acting deputy director for housing code enforcement with the LCI, told the committee that the change could help assist city officials who need to make quick decisions during time-sensitive situations.

“Over the past weekend with the snowstorm, we had quite a few emergencies in the city of New Haven,” Wilson said. “At that time, trying to locate a physical or a natural person at two in the morning when you don’t have any contact information is very difficult. At times like this, we have to make split-second decisions on what to do with a tenant, maybe to relocate them, to put them in a hotel when we can’t reach a landlord.”

Wilson added that having a real person to talk to would not only be useful during emergencies. The LCI would also benefit from knowing that a physical person was receiving notices of code violations and orders for corrective action.

Alders raised questions during the meeting about the efficacy of the amendment. Alder Jeanette Morrison in particular expressed concerns about how long it would take to implement the amendment and how owners would be fined for noncompliance.

“If we don’t put a real bite to this, this is not going to be worth the paper that it’s written on,” Morrison said.

If passed, the amendment would not cause any immediate changes. Instead, it would alter the licensing process for future applicants. Since rental property owners must renew their licenses every one to three years, the city would have a complete database by 2025. Samuel added that she would encourage landlords to update their contact information sooner, even if they did not yet need to renew their license.

Alder Adam Marchand also inquired about the legality of the proposal, noting that property owners can be “litigious.” Samuel confirmed that attorney Michael Pinto of the city’s Office of the Corporation Counsel had reviewed the proposal. She added that the goal of the amendment is not to hold a specific individual liable for any code violations but rather to have an accessible contact person.

Ultimately, all seven alders at the committee meeting voted in favor of the amendment. It will now move to the full Board of Alders.

“​​We want landlords to be reachable so they can be held accountable for problems that arise in their properties,” Marchand said. “And too often we’ve had residents living under blighted conditions, we’ve had city staff frustrated because they have not been able to determine the proper chain of custody and chain of ownership.”

More than half of New Haven County renters are cost-burdened, meaning they spend at least 30 percent of their income on housing.

Sadie Bograd covers Nonprofits and Social Services. Last year, she covered City Hall. Originally from Kentucky, she is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in Urban Studies.