Courtesy of Altheda Bastien

The director of real estate investment company Ocean Management, which oversees over a thousand low-income housing units in the city through its affiliates, was fined $1,500 for six housing code violations on Feb. 21.

Ocean Management principal Shmuel Aizenberg’s code violations — which included broken and absent smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, accumulated trash and a deteriorated sidewalk, as well as a ceiling and porch in danger of collapse — come as state lawmakers consider a bill that would quadruple the maximum fines that cities may charge offending landlords. Three Ocean Management tenants told the News they believe that governments must do more to prevent violations that pose health risks.

“It’s one part of the solution. I don’t think it’s the full solution,” said Ocean Management tenant Jessica Stamp, a leader of the Blake Street tenants union. “If you are being neglectful of someone’s housing, that’s the air that they’re breathing the entire time, and they’re sleeping there. If there’s rodents and cockroaches, and you’re just exposed to all of these different things … this is a long term health exposure.” 

Stamp, a resident of 311 Blake St., filed one of the complaints against Aizenberg that made it to the courts. After she raised concerns about broken light bulbs and debris in the building’s laundry room in early November, Stamp received no responses from Ocean Management or the city’s Livable Cities Initiative, which is responsible for investigating housing complaints and ensuring landlords comply with ordinances on living conditions.

After Stamp alerted her alder about her problems, she said an LCI inspector came to tour the property later that month. She brought attention to issues like broken smoke detectors, planks of wood with protruding nails, loose electrical wiring, various fire hazards and unvented washing machines, which spread dust and moisture throughout the laundry room. 

According to Stamp, when she and the same LCI inspector walked through the property again in late December for a check-in, “almost nothing was done.” On this tour, Stamp and the inspector discovered garbage overflowing “all over the place,” open dumpster ducts and partially-destroyed furniture littered about. Stamp said that the debris was only cleared in mid-January — after Aizenberg was fined $6,500 for 25 violations in December, but before the LCI made its most recent visit on Jan. 20.

“We do have mice and skunks, and the feral cats who are in the area and they go through the bags,” Stamp said. “So I called in January and said ‘Hey, [the LCI is] coming back out.’ And so at that point like they got the garbage dumped. They had emptied within a day. They hired somebody to actually clean up the property.”

The December court appearance was Aizenberg’s third of 2022, following two cases in May and August. In total, Aizenberg has racked up about $14,000 for 56 housing code violations in the past 10 months.

Altheda Bastien, a 58 Blake St. resident, shared that she has filed complaints for issues like “mice problems galore,” improperly discarded trash, maintenance failures and an unpainted exterior. She received a call from the city about two months ago inquiring about whether the property’s problems were resolved. Although Bastien told the News that she believes her complaints against Ocean Management made it to the legal system, there are no records of LCI charges at 58 Blake St. addressed by the courts in 2022. 

Meanwhile, Amanda Watts, a resident of 1476 Chapel St. and member of the CT Tenants Union, told the News that they filed complaints with Ocean Management and the city for a slew of problems at their building — including finding at least 10 mice in their apartment, having screeching radiators and noticing extremely disparate heating levels between some floors — to no avail. 

“There are holes in the walls in our lobby,” Watts said. “I found some roaches in the washing machines. There are holes on the outside of our building. I saw that the fire escape that goes out of my window doesn’t go all the way to the ground, which is pretty dangerous… It’s super disrespectful, and inhumane and unjust, that my requests are just being flat out ignored.”

According to Watts, the property’s poor living conditions have affected one of their neighbor’s health, resulting in multiple doctors’ notes and a reduced ability to work.

They added that although no one ever arrived to address the radiator problem after they filed a report with Ocean, the issue was marked as closed on their tenant portal. Bastien, who has a “paper trail of complaints a mile long” in the tenant portal, recalled instances where Ocean Management took a lax attitude toward problems she reported. She added that they often blamed their lack of urgency on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ocean Management did not respond to a request for comment on this story. The New Haven Independent reported that at his court appearance last week, Aizenberg promised that ​“[their] plan is not to visit here anymore” and that the company has hired contractors to prevent future violations. 

Stamp confirmed that Ocean hired a contractor who accompanied her and the LCI inspector on their Jan. 20 visit. Nonetheless, she expressed frustration with the contractors’ specific focus on dealing with issues brought to the LCI instead of tenants’ general problems, especially as the LCI only handles one housing unit at a time.

“Why are they hiring somebody to clean up the mess instead of preventing it in the first place?” Stamp said. “Now they’re just putting a bandaid on it when LCI comes out. And I think that’s going to prevent them from being held accountable for what they were doing in the first place.”

Preceding each court appearance, Ocean Management addressed all of their respective charges in addition to other issues discovered by the LCI. At Stamp’s property, this included fixing the inadequate lighting, installing locks on boiler areas, filling holes in the walls with cement and placing a smoke detector in her apartment.

On the same day that Aizenberg appeared in housing court, Mayor Justin Elicker spoke before state legislators in support of a bill allowing cities to raise maximum fines against offender landlords. The bill, proposed by New Haven’s Representative Roland Lemar, would increase maximum fines from $250 per violation to $1,000 per violation.

“Frankly, a $250 fine is often insufficient for egregious and repeat offenders, as the fines are simply treated as the cost of doing business, and landlords either don’t proactively get into front of problems or deliberately fail to fix them,” Elicker told the News. “That’s why we’re advocating that the state legislature increase the maximum penalty to up to $1,000 to help ensure chronic, bad acting landlords manage their properties properly on behalf of their tenants.”

The three Ocean Management tenants told the News that they support the proposal to quadruple fines, but added that the bill should only serve as a first step toward holding wealthy landlords accountable. Stamp stressed that the fines were “better than nothing,” but that $50,000 in fines would amount to very little compared to the profits Ocean Management makes collecting rent.

Bastien and Stamp, who stressed that Aizenberg’s repeated violations put lives at risk, proposed that offender landlords face time in jail. Watts argued for heavier non-criminal legal repercussions in addition to the fines, which they said should be increased even further.

“If slumlords don’t care about actual people that they’ve taken responsibility for, then we have to hit them in their pockets,” Watts said. “These are real people’s lives — the families that live here and children that live here — are subjected to these conditions, and no one should ever have to be living under the conditions.” 

There are currently three bills sitting in the state legislature that include provisions allowing cities to boost fines against landlords. Ward 7 Alder Eli Sabin ’22 agreed that Ocean Management’s repeated court appearances have demonstrated that the fines are not high enough.

Sabin told the News that the city should also engage in “proactive enforcement” of housing ordinances — as opposed to “responsive enforcement” — to ensure living conditions remain safe. He said that if the bill to raise fines on landlords passes, cities could be allowed to keep some of the revenue and allocate it towards housing code enforcement efforts.

A representative for the LCI did not respond to a request for comment from the News. Instead, city spokesperson Len Speiller provided the News with the statement from Elicker.

Stamp, who previously spoke to the Yale Daily News Magazine about systemic problems in the LCI’s case management system, similarly insisted that the LCI must begin doing licensing visits to every single Ocean Management property, in addition to being more responsive to complaints and hiring more staff. 

“If they went through every single Ocean property, my guess is they would find at every single Ocean property that there were housing code violations,” Stamp said. “And some of them would be so severe, they would have to condemn the buildings. But the LCI is not doing that.”

Currently, Stamp said she and other 311 Blake St. residents are dealing with a rodent issue, with several tenants finding mice nests in their apartments. 

The housing code violations included in this month’s case occurred at 311 Blake St., 56 Blake St. and 57 Carmel St.

Correction 3/3: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Eli Sabin is the Ward 1 Alder. Sabin is the Ward 7 Alder.

Megan Vaz is the former city desk editor. She previously covered Yale-New Haven relations and Yale unions, additionally serving as an audience desk staffer.