NORWALK – When the city created a new position for a Fair Rent and Accessibility Coordinator, the idea was to address a growing demand from local residents, but members of the city’s Fair Rent Commission are now questioning the qualifications of a potential hire for lacking a law degree.
The new full-time employee is charged with organizing the city’s fair rent program, ensuring compliance with state and federal laws, addressing the rights of protected classes and working with the Fair Rent Commission.
“Norwalk has had the Fair Rent Department for many years,” said Chief of Community Services Lamond Daniels during a phone call. “It was just important that we maintain this role.”
Between landlords raising rents during the pandemic, increased foot traffic at City Hall and a restructured Community Service Department, Daniels said the new position was a “no-brainer.”
Over the last four years, two directors of Human Relations and Fair Rent have left to work for the Housing Authority and a 2022 efficiency study concluded that the vacant position was no longer viable. Fair Rent was then transferred to the newly-formed Community Services Department.
Daniels said he had searched for someone to fill the new role for about a year, and that finding someone with an understanding of fair rent law in a competitive job market took some time. He said that he has made an official offer to a candidate.
But after announcing the offer at a Wednesday Fair Rent Commission meeting, members asked Daniels whether the candidate shouldn’t be a lawyer.
“We definitely wanted a lawyer, but we just couldn’t find one that would want to take this position,” Daniels told members.
He said that he had made an offer to someone who had worked on fair rent and disability issues for another community, and that he was confident that the candidate could support the commission and residents regardless of a law degree.
Daniels also assured members that the city would cover additional legal training for the candidate, and that the position would be overseen by the Director of Human Services who holds a law degree.
Commission member Brenda Penn-Williams said she understood that the candidate had experience with another town, but that Norwalk was unique from all other municipalities in the state.
“I just hope that we will get some honesty from this person and he will look out for the best interests of, you know, the folks in Norwalk,” Penn-Williams said.
“And that is my goal as well,” Daniels responded.
Even if staff is changing, Daniels told CT Examiner that the office is still looked on as a model by other municipalities.
Earlier this year, the state legislature passed a law requiring every municipality with at least 25,000 residents to establish a Fair Rent Commission. But Norwalk fair rent ordinances, including commission membership, were adopted in 1970.
“Norwalk has had this fair rent office for many years prior, and now we get some restructuring,” Daniels said. “But the services, the quality, and the ability to serve our constituents has not changed. In fact, I believe it’s gotten better.”
Daniels said that he was still awaiting a response to the offer, but he said the city hired a part-time attorney to ensure that fair rent services were available to residents in the meantime.