The garage doors of a Stamford high-rise are often stuck open, so anyone can walk in and go up to the apartments inside.
Tenants say they sometimes hear people in the hallways at night, and sometimes their door handles jiggle as if someone is trying to get in.
Tenants say the property manager repeatedly says that maintenance workers are “waiting for a part” to fix the garage doors.
Other tenants say windows and sliding doors in some Stamford high-rises leak when it rains. They report wet flooring and walls in their apartments, and creeping black mold, to the property manager, but the leaks continue, they say.
Still other tenants say annual lease renewals are beyond stressful. Renewal offers are delayed or refused for no reason, they say, and sometimes they are told the new lease will be month-to-month rather than yearly.
Already expensive rents are raised $100, $200, or more, and parking and amenity fees are slapped on, tenants say. Some say eviction proceedings are initiated against them if they complain.
None of the tenants wanted their names published for fear of retaliation from property managers.
Luke Melonakos Harrison hears such stories around the state.
Harrison is an organizer with the Connecticut Tenants Union, which demands rights for people living in rental units; an end to displacement, landlord harassment and eviction; and “democratic control of our housing.”
Harrison had a hand in an event last month in New Haven, where Mayor Justin Elicker signed an ordinance making that city the first in Connecticut to recognize tenant unions.
The ordinance, which applies to rental buildings with at least 10 units, allows tenant unions to work with the New Haven Fair Rent Commission to investigate rent hikes, poor living conditions, retaliatory evictions, and other problems.
So far there are tenant unions in two buildings in New Haven, and three others elsewhere in the state, Harrison said.
Tenants in Connecticut are beginning to react to conditions – exorbitant rent increases, low vacancy rates, a shortage of housing units, and a state law prohibiting rent controls – that put them at disadvantage, Harrison said.
“I see it as part of the bigger picture of what’s happening in the country,” Harrison said. “There are extreme levels of income inequality. People are seeing their wages stagnate and their kids have a lower standard of living than they had. There’s widespread frustration with broken promises. The labor movement is picking up again, and tenants’ unions are a part of that. Most of the organizing is at these big apartment buildings owned by massive management companies.”
But the first union was home-grown, he said. In the town of Windsor, near Hartford, low-income elderly tenants of a Housing Authority complex were sick of an abusive property manager, poor maintenance, and a drop-off in services.
“They got together and started operating as a union, even though they weren’t calling it that,” Harrison said. “We connected with them in March 2021, when they were testifying at a public hearing in Hartford.”
The Windsor tenants succeeded in getting rid of the abusive manager, replacing her with a new staff, and improving building conditions, Harrison said.
The problems can be enormous, he said.
“There’s quite a roster of horror stories. The health and safety issues are awful,” Harrison said. “People have developed asthma and respiratory problems because of black mold they can’t get a landlord to remediate. People have had open sewage in their bathroom or trickling down a wall, and they can’t get a landlord to fix it. We are seeing a lot of what we call predatory towing, where management companies set these strict rules for getting a parking pass, and when tenants can’t get passes, their cars are towed to a place 45 minutes away. When they get there, they’re told they have to pay cash and it has to be exact change. People have lost their cars.”
Such situations drive tenants to organize, said Wildaliz Bermudez, executive director of the New Haven Fair Rent Commission. To unionize, 51 percent of the tenants in a building must agree, Bermudez said.
“There is definite interest in forming unions. California and New York have tenants unions. In New York City, tenants purchased a building. So it’s not a new concept. It’s just new to Connecticut,” Bermudez said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are many more in Connecticut and we just don’t know about them yet.”
It’s fallen to her office to blaze the way.
“State law mentions tenant unions, but it doesn’t say exactly how a Fair Rent Commission is supposed to receive tenant union complaints. We’re creating a system for receiving and tracking them,” Bermudez said.
The purpose of the system goes beyond resolving individual complaints, she said. The unions can help municipal Fair Rent Commissions put together citywide pictures of rent prices, landlord practices, tenant living situations, and building conditions, Bermudez said.
“The overall goal is fairness, and having a well-maintained housing stock,” she said.
Harrison said Connecticut needs to build a structure for addressing tenant problems. The Legislature passed a law this year requiring that every municipality with at least 25,000 residents establish a Fair Rent Commission.
But, in most towns, “Fair Rent Commissions are not in existence or they’re difficult to access,” Harrison said.
“These commissions may exist on paper but no one has been appointed so they don’t exist in reality. Many town employees don’t know the scope of powers that Fair Rent Commissions have – they can order landlords to reduce rent until repairs are made, they can order investigations, they can subpoena records. A lot of towns are not using those powers, and they are reluctant to do so unless tenants demand it.”
In Stamford, the Fair Rent Commission is part of the Social Services Commission – five citizen volunteers appointed by the mayor.
Sharona Cowan, Stamford’s social services director, acts as coordinator of the Social Services Commission. Cowan, who assumed the role 10 months ago, has been doing her former job, director of mandated services, at the same time.
Someone was just hired to fill her old slot, which will free her to focus on fair rent issues, Cowan said. They begin with contact from a tenant. Cowan works with the tenant and landlord to see if there’s room to negotiate.
“It’s just me,” Cowan said. “Stamford does not have a department with staff who only works on these complaints, like some towns do.”
If tenant and landlord cannot agree, Cowan refers the case to the commissioners, who meet monthly. If the commissioners take the case, they hold a hearing and come to a decision. The parties have 30 days to appeal the decision in State Superior Court.
Cowan said she wants to get information out to Stamford’s fast-growing population of tenants about the process and the law.
Landlords, for instance, have the right to not renew leases or to renew monthly, Cowan said.
She thinks tenant unions provide an avenue for tenants “to stand up for themselves.”
Stamford tenants said they like the idea of unions in buildings where property managers ignore their complaints and retaliate against them.
Harrison said change is coming.
“I feel like something has opened up … in a way I have not seen previously,” he said.