Ellie Park, Photography Editor

Mega-landlord Ocean Management has agreed to formally negotiate with the Blake Street Tenants Union, withdrawing the 16 eviction notices they issued to union members last month. 

The landlord and the union signed a memorandum of understanding last Friday, marking the first time in Connecticut a landlord has recognized a tenants union and agreed to engage in collective bargaining. 

The agreement comes after the union hosted a march from City Hall to Ocean’s Whalley Avenue offices last Wednesday, where leaders accused Ocean of illegally retaliating against union organizers by threatening them with evictions. Federal, state and city legislators, as well as hundreds of protestors, many from local labor unions, attended the protest. 

“They tried to ignore us,” Sarah Giovanniello ’16, vice president of the union, told the News. “It shows the strength of our collective power, everybody’s commitment, and the fact that people stood strong through something scary, that now [Ocean] feels like they don’t have the option to ignore us anymore.” 

The Blake Street Tenants Union, which represents the residents of Elizabeth Apartments at 311 Blake St., is New Haven’s first officially recognized tenants union, representing tenants in 45 units. The union began negotiations with Ocean earlier this summer, after the landlord informed some tenants in June that they would face rent increases of up to 30 percent. 

Three days after Ocean and union representatives met to negotiate on Aug. 16, 16 tenants, all union members, found notices to quit taped to their doors. In response, the union created a petition, complained to the city’s Fair Rent Commission and filed an injunction and a lawsuit against Ocean in court, arguing that the evictions were illegal forms of retaliation against the union. 

The union’s response crescendoed with last Wednesday’s march outside City Hall, where union leaders demanded Ocean rescind the evictions before throngs of cheering protestors. Sen. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73, Mayor Justin Elicker SOM ’10 and the New Haven state legislative delegation also spoke in support of the union at the protest. 

Two days after the march, Ocean and the union signed a memorandum of understanding. In a copy of the memorandum, which was obtained by the News, Ocean agreed to rescind the eviction notices posted on Aug. 19. In turn, the union agreed to withdraw their complaint to the Fair Rent Commission and the injunction filed in court. The memorandum includes a “cooling off” period of three months, during which Ocean promised to not reissue eviction notices and the union promised to not instigate legal action against the landlord.

In an email to the News, Ocean wrote, “Ocean Management by no means took a “retaliatory” action, and does not view the situation in terms of “wins” and “losses”. It is unfortunate that the union chooses to use such terminology, as unnecessary rhetoric jeopardizes the honest attempts made by Ocean Management to resolve the matter without resorting to legal action.” 

Luke Melonakos-Harrison DIV ’23, vice president of Connecticut Tenants Union, described a mood of relief and pride among union members and organizers after Ocean withdrew the eviction notices. 

“We know that forming a tenant union with the level of tenant protections that currently exist legally in Connecticut can be very daunting,” Melankos-Harrison said. “We hope this proves to more and more people that tenant unions really do have power, and we can’t afford to not take action around the rental crisis. We hope this sends a message of hope: tenant unions can do it.” 

“This is a really important moment,” Giovanniello said. “The first step for any union is recognition, when the employer or landlord or whoever recognizes the union and negotiates with the union.”

Among the negotiation topics are no-fault evictions, stable and affordable rent, timely maintenance, communication with renters and a guarantee of non-retaliation against the union. Ocean Management, which owns over 1,000 primarily low-income housing units across New Haven, has been fined $14,000 for 56 housing code violations since 2022. Tenants at 331 Blake St. previously spoke with the News, reporting broken fire alarms, fire hazards and rodent infestations, among other health hazards in the building. 

Since residents at 331 Blake St. voted to unionize, two other tenants unions have formed in New Haven. Both unions are in Ocean-controlled units: at 1275 Quinnipiac Ave. and at 1476 Chapel St. 

“We’re not doing this just for Blake Street,” Sinclair McCutcheon, a member of the Blake Street Tenants Union, said. “We’re doing this for all renters.” 

For Melonakos-Harrison, the turmoil of the past weeks is evidence of the injustice of no fault evictions — when landlords evict tenants without a specific complaint against the tenant. 

The notices to quit Ocean served to the 16 tenants in August are classified as lapse of time evictions, a type of no fault eviction where a landlord chooses not to renew a lease after it expires.

“Lapse of time evictions — no fault evictions — are so disruptive and so frequently wielded to hold the threat of homelessness over people’s heads,” Melonakos-Harrison said. “If people are not violating their lease, if they are paying their rent on time, they should have a right to renew their lease and stay in their home.” 

Last January, Connecticut housing organizers rallied behind a “Cap the Rent” bill that would have limited rent increases in the state to 2.5 percent a year and restricted no fault evictions. A modified version of the bill failed to advance out of the Housing Committee in March. 

The Blake Street Tenants Union formed in November 2022, when 31 of the 45 total residents who occupied units at Elizabeth Apartments voted to unionize. 

Update, Sept. 8: Ocean Management responded to a request for comment from the News via email. The article has been updated to include the statement.

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