Maia Nehme, Contributing Photographer

Dozens of protestors holding cardboard signs with the phrases “Power to the People” and “W.W.J.D.? He Would’ve Fixed It” gathered outside City Hall for the Rally for Safe Living Conditions on Saturday. 

The rally marked over two months since a pipe burst in the Emerson Apartments on Feb. 1, causing severe water damage to three apartment units. A few weeks later, Alexander Kolokotronis GRD ’23 and James Blau — who have been staying in a hotel since their apartments became unlivable — formed the Emerson Tenants Union in response to their landlord’s request that they continue to pay rent for their condemned apartments. At Saturday’s rally, the union demanded that Emerson Apartments landlord Raymond Sola engage in collective bargaining with them and for New Haven’s Livable City Initiative, or LCI, to enforce the city’s Housing Code Ordinance.

“If our situation is this extreme and we still can’t get it rectified, who knows what’s happening to hundreds, if not thousands, of tenants in the city of New Haven … who are not in the situation of having a condemned apartment but have apartments that are in appalling states,” Kolokotronis told the News.

City Director of Communications Lenny Speiller wrote to the News that the city government is using “all the tools in its enforcement toolkit” to support the Emerson Tenants Union, such as a joint inspection of the condemned apartments conducted by LCI, the Building Department and the Fire Marshall’s office. The Fair Rent Commission also reviewed the three water-damage cases, requiring Sola to provide rental reimbursement and no longer charge rent to the displaced tenants.

The union kicked off Saturday’s rally by passing around a petition requesting a meeting with Mayor Justin Elicker. Kolokotronis, Blau and Senator Martin Looney — who previously sent a letter to Sola urging him to engage in collective bargaining with the union — also spoke at the start of the rally. 

Blau explained that since the Emerson Tenants Union registered at City Hall on Feb. 23, both Sola and Trinity Lutheran Church — which has owned the apartments since 2000 — have maintained “complete radio silence.” This has involved ignoring both the union’s efforts to engage in collective bargaining and personal messages from Blau and Kolokotronis.

Apart from the demolition of Blau and Kolokotronis’ water-damaged bathrooms during the week after the pipe burst, Sola and Trinity Lutheran have not funded further work on the condemned apartments, according to Blau. Additionally, when the workers turned on fans in the demolished bathrooms, a “thick, brownish, reddish dust” settled over Blau and Kolokotronis’ apartments. Blau said that he professionally tested this dust and found that it was full of mold, yet Sola and Trinity Lutheran did not respond to his requests for remediation.

“I don’t think it’s fair that the landlord can just go in and say, ‘I don’t see mold’ when [Blau] tested and found five different types of mold,” Karime Aybar, who is friends with Kolokotronis, told the News. “They’re not repairing the damages, there’s been a leak for months and they haven’t fixed it, there’s been illegal demolitions. People deserve a place to live and that’s not fair to them.”

Kenneth Naito MUS ’24 lives next door to Kolokotronis. Although his apartment was unaffected by the pipe burst, Naito joined the union after seeing the extensive water damage to his neighbor’s apartment.

Naito emphasized that the union does not plan to employ aggressive organizing tactics, despite the continued unresponsiveness from Sola and Trinity Lutheran.  

“We could easily protest on a Sunday in front of the church, but we won’t, because we respect … that that’s a very important day for them,” Naito said. “We’re trying to try to find other ways to engage with them in a peaceful and meaningful manner.”

Sola did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the News, and Trinity Lutheran declined to comment.

After their speeches, the union’s leaders led the crowd of roughly forty protesters to Trinity Lutheran, where two representatives of the Hamden Legislative Council voiced solidarity with the union and highlighted the lack of enforcement of New Haven’s Housing Code Ordinance in this case.

LCI conducted inspections of Kolokotronis’ and Blau’s water-damaged apartments in February and sent condemnation notices to Sola on March 19, informing him that both properties were unlivable and that he had a seven-hour deadline to stop the water leakage from above the units. Per the city’s Housing Code Ordinance, LCI also stated that failure to comply with their orders could result in criminal prosecution and a $100 penalty per day of violation.

Blau said that despite Sola’s unresponsiveness to the condemnation notices, LCI still has not prosecuted him or subjected him to the financial penalty, which now totals $5,600. LCI did not respond immediately to the News’ request for comment.

After LCI issued the violation notice to Sola, it met with Kolokotronis and Blau about temporary relocation services. LCI also met with Sola, who agreed to cover Blau’s relocation costs, while Kolokotronis’ rental insurance covered his relocation.

“[T]here are not currently grounds for LCI to take further action or seek penalties at this time while the units are condemned and the landlord is actively working to make the necessary repairs,” Speiller wrote to the News. “That said, should residents have other housing complaints, they should submit a complaint to LCI, and LCI will conduct an inspection and act accordingly.”

“Your municipalities are bound by state statute to enforce your health and safety,” Hamden Legislative Councilor Abdul Osmanu said at the rally. “When your alder comes to you and tells you that this is not a problem, when your mayor pushes you aside, know that they are complicit in the conditions that you are living under. [That] is why we organize, that is why we fight and that is why we are damn sure going to win.”

Speiller added that the Building Department issued a cease-and-desist order, required Sola to obtain the correct work permits for construction and placed a lien on the property until the repairs are complete. Once construction is complete, the Building Department will inspect the three units again to ensure that they align with the state building code. 

According to Speiller, Elicker “strongly supports” collective bargaining between landlords and tenants’ unions. He plans to submit legislation this year expanding the number of tenants and properties eligible to be part of a tenants’ union. This legislation will reinforce a June 2022 law that officially recognizes tenants’ unions in Connecticut and encourages them to work with the city to ensure fair rent increases, satisfactory living conditions and protection from landlord retaliation.   

The Emerson Tenants Union is the city’s fifth registered tenants union.

Update April, 22: This article was updated to include comment from New Haven Director of Communications Lenny Speiller.

Maia Nehme covers housing and homelessness and Latine communities for the News. Originally from Washington, D.C., she is a first-year in Benjamin Franklin College majoring in history.