The mold C. found growing in her apartment (Courtesy of C.)

When C. began renting a basement unit apartment in New Haven in 2017, she found mold growing in her son’s room. C. — who has been granted anonymity to protect her privacy — contacted property-owner Ocean Management and the Livable City Initiative, New Haven’s agency responsible for investigating housing complaints, about the problem. 

Despite visits from LCI and the New Haven Health Department, the mold was never removed. C. said Ocean Management only sent someone to look at the mold after she and her family had cleaned the room themselves.

“We were quarantining, stuck in one room for a long period of time,” C. said. “Then one day we just put our masks on and cleaned it.”

After the Health Department became involved, C. discovered another problem: her son had tested positive for elevated blood lead levels. In response to the lead test, the Health Department moved her family to a different Ocean Management property, where rent was higher.

When the Health Department came to test the new apartment, they found traces of lead there, too. 

“My youngest child is now walking, and the lead is in the floor,” C. said. 

Ocean Management did not respond to a request for comment. 

Most homes were built before 1978 — the year using lead paint in residential buildings was banned — meaning the vast majority of homes in New Haven contain lead in their structures. The News previously reported that cases of lead exposure disproportionately occur among children living in low-income, older and poorly maintained properties; New Haven’s percentage of children under the age of six with elevated blood lead levels are also over triple that of the state.

According to Francesca Maviglia, a postgraduate associate at the Yale School of Medicine and organizer with the Connecticut Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, C.’s prolonged struggle to get her landlord to address poor living conditions is not uncommon among New Haven tenants. 

“A lot of tenants are very skeptical of the system because in many cases, they have tried to use [the LCI] and they have not really seen any of the issues resolved in a timely manner and not seen the landlord be held accountable when they need to be,” Maviglia said. “From our perspective, it seems like the process with the city is broken and trust among the tenants is broken.”

The LCI did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Two other current Ocean Management tenants who requested anonymity spoke about issues with overheating and underheating in apartments. One reported an exploded water heater that left their apartment with freezing cold water, while the other tenant linked excessive heat conditions to an asthma flare-up and visits to the doctor’s office.

C. said that her family also dealt with inadequate heating during winters. When she complained about problems with heating, Ocean Management provided a space heater, but insufficient insulation in the walls meant she and her young children were exposed to the cold for long periods of time. A big need to fix water heaters is rising among the tenants.

Ronnie Cotten, a veteran living in New Haven on a fixed income, told the News that he experienced a mouse and rat infestation while renting at 33 Hazel St. Cotten. He attributed his worsening asthma to the vermin defecation and urine, which he said sent him to the hospital. According to Cotten, LCI visited his rental three times, but conditions did not improve. 

Cotten’s landlord could not be reached for this story. 

“I saw that I was getting nowhere, and I felt like I was getting sicker and sicker,” Cotten said. 

Cotten said he left that rental on his own accord and moved into a hotel. He is currently unhoused and trying to get a Section Eight housing voucher. 

Maviglia said the LCI inspection process is often marked by poor communication with tenants and lack of follow-up. She said tenants often experienced delays: if they miss a call from LCI or if inspectors show up while they are at work, the process is set back. 

“There’s a lack of structure for tenants to really be engaged in the process, know what is happening, know what the status of their report is, know what the follow-up is going to be and then actually see results,” Maviglia said. 

Danya Keene, associate professor of social behavioral sciences at the Yale School of Public Health, has extensively researched the relationship between housing policy, the affordable housing crisis and population health equity. She told the News that her team has conducted interviews with renters around the state of Connecticut, who have often reported living under “horrifically poor housing conditions.”

Keene linked the health problems tenants may develop to high costs of housing, arguing that obtaining housing with better living conditions is difficult for low-income and socially disadvantaged residents. 

“This lack of affordable housing limits the ability of renters to choose housing that is healthy, or to walk with their feet when they are dissatisfied by housing conditions,” Keene wrote to the News. “Tenants’ ability to choose healthy housing is further limited by other barriers — for example, many landlords will not rent to someone who has an eviction record, a criminal record or someone who has poor credit history.”

Keene argued for the importance of rental assistance as a means for low–income families to avoid poor housing health impacts. She also cited a study stating that low-income children living in public housing were less likely to report elevated blood lead levels than children of similar economic statuses living in rental housing, making public regulation vital to health outcomes.

The city does not publish data on active housing code complaints or specific case information, which may include impacts on tenant health. 

Seems to me like a regulatory overhaul is needed that includes random regular testing, and a well-structured and accountable reporting system to track the statistics of housing violations and their likely public health impacts,” a Yale School of Public Health student who currently lives in an Ocean Management property wrote to the News.

There are a total of 59 open cases reporting children with elevated blood lead levels in the city of New Haven.

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.
Maggie Grether covers housing and homelessness for city desk. Originally from Pasadena, California, she is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles college.