KILLINGWORTH — Residents voted on Wednesday by a margin of 91-25 to approve the creation of a Fair Rent Commission in Killingworth after a 45-minute debate on the amount of power the commission would have to prescribe rental rates and the impact on town legal costs.
The push to form a commission came largely from the residents of the Beechwood Mobile Home Community in Killingworth. Last month, residents held a press conference with state and local officials in which they spoke about the recent increases in rent and ongoing maintenance issues — including septic problems and the need for retaining walls on the property. The residents maintain that the rents — which have risen $60, to $481, over the last 5 years — started increasing at a higher rate when Sun Corporation took over the park in 2019.
Killingworth First Selectman Nancy Gorski told residents of Beechwood at the time that she was looking into forming a Fair Rent Commission — a board of volunteers with the power to hear complaints about rental cost and deferred maintenance, to hold hearings and conduct studies and investigations.
But not everyone was on board with the idea.
While most attending town meeting said they were in favor of helping the residents of Beechwood, some questioned whether this commission would actually provide the relief from increasing rents that the residents were seeking.
“Beechwood’s lot rent … is not out of line with similar developments in similar communities,” said Laura Lefko, a town resident and chairman of the Killingworth Republican Town Committee. “In my opinion … this is not going to help you long-term.”
Other town residents said they were concerned about an increase in legal fees to the town. And several smaller landlords also said they were concerned that the commission would give other people the right to determine what they should or should not charge for rents.
“I get Sun Communities. But there’s a lot of private rentals out there too,” said Walter Adametz, a landlord in Killingworth. “And now the town’s going to tell me what I can and cannot charge rent. I don’t think it’s fair.”
According to Connecticut law, a Fair Rent Commission can limit rents if it finds the rent to be “harsh and unconscionable.” It can also suspend a tenant’s rent if a landlord is not complying with health and safety regulations, and it can order a landlord not to retaliate against a tenant who has come to the commission with a complaint.
By state statute, when determining whether a rent is appropriate, a commission should consider factors such as the rental costs in the area, the sanitary conditions of the rental, the “amount and frequency” of rent increases, the services provided and whether rent increases will be used to improve the properties.
Residents of Beechwood acknowledged that the Fair Rent Commission was “a first step” as they worked toward other methods of controlling rent — like a state law that would cap yearly rental increases at 3 percent.
“This is just a start,” said a Beechwood resident named Stephanie. “We’re all older. We’re living on a fixed income. We’re not wealthy. And if we have a fair rent commission here, it’s a start.”
“[The Fair Rent Commission] is a ‘Hey, pay attention. We have something behind us. We’re not in here alone.’ And up to very recently, it has felt like we are in there alone,” said Beechwood resident Kathleen Amoia. “Everybody needs some piece of power, and if you have none, nobody’s going to listen.”
Selectman Jamie Mowat Young said she at first she, too, had doubts about the effectiveness of the commission, but that she saw it as a fair way of approaching the problem.
“I agree something needs to be done,” she said. “And this has been run by legal counsel. It is being used by other communities. It likely won’t make a big difference initially, but it will give you some advocacy.”
She also noted that the commission would require both residents and landlords — including Sun Communities — to come together and talk “in a safe environment.”
“It requires them to come to the table and face you, face-to-face, and say no to your face and then face the consequences if they have broken the law,” said Mowat Young.
Selectman Louis Annino said he saw the Fair Rent Commission as a proxy for the landlord-tenant relationship that used to exist before multistate companies came in to run developments like Beechwood.
“The customer[s] of the new landlord are the investors rather than the tenants. And I see this as being a vehicle to shift that back,” he said.
Gorski added that the commission would include representation for both renters and landlords, so that there would be a “diversity of thought.”
“As a landlord, don’t feel that you’re threatened by this. Think of this as a conversation, think of this as an understanding … that you have an opportunity to have your voices — both sides of the table — to be heard,” she said.
Gorski told CT Examiner in advance of the meeting that she believes the Fair Rent Commission would offer a new avenue for people to air grievances about rent increases, and particularly those who have sought assistance elsewhere without success.
“What I’m hoping for Killingworth is that we have a tool in the box for those individuals where, perhaps they’ve gone to [the Department of] Consumer Protection and their voices haven’t been heard,” she said. “This gives us another tool in the box for the time being until more formal legislation can be passed.”
Gorski also told CT Examiner that she didn’t anticipate a cost associated with the commission — if there is a need for the town’s attorney to step in to handle litigation, she said, that would come out of the normal operating costs. Or, she said, there might be an opportunity to receive pro bono help from the Connecticut Legal Services, Inc.
She said that her goal is to have the commission set up and ready to go by November.