BEACON FALLS — Residents rejected a proposal on Tuesday to form a fair rent commission, as concerns over the costs appeared to outweigh appeals by renters who felt a commission was needed to control rising rental rates in the town.
The town has been debating the possibility of forming a fair rent commission since August, when residents of the River’s Edge Mobile Home Community started a petition that they brought to the Board of Selectmen after discovering that the Florida-based corporation Athena Real Estate, the owner of River’s Edge, said they were raising the rents $50 a month, a hike of 10 percent. Residents said that their rents had increased without any corresponding increase in services at the park.
In a written comment to CT Examiner, Athena replied that, “Our rental increase effective July 1 was in line with the inflationary CPI increase for the last year. Demand at River’s Edge MHC remains high as occupancy is over 98% with only one home for sale. We strive to offer clean, safe, and reasonably priced lots for our residents. We have made improvements to River’s Edge since our ownership and resolved maintenance items timely.”
Residents said they feared they wouldn’t be able to stay in the area if their rents continued to increase.
“I’m on disability now. I bought my mobile home because I wanted to be secure and capable of paying my mortgage and rent on my own. And that’s going to start changing in the next couple of years. I know that this is going to get harder,” said resident Colleen Dana.
Kathy Johnson, the former first selectwoman of Oxford, whose son lives in the mobile home park, said that while she didn’t want to see her taxes go up, the commission was a necessary safeguard for “the least among us” — retirees on a fixed income, or people like her son, who has a brain injury.
“I’m here to protect my son,” she said. “I don’t want to pay any more money than anybody else in this room. But this Florida company, this company who has bought that trailer park and that land … is going to go up in the rent and gouge people. My son cannot afford that.”
Debra Bostram, who has lived in the park for 43 years, said that if rents continue to go up, it would drive people out of town.
“If we do not get rent control in our town, most of us are going to have to leave because we can’t afford to live there. Nor does the town have senior housing for us, so we have to go elsewhere. So I think it’s very important that you think about your neighbors who are struggling,” said Bostram.
River’s Edge residents were not the only renters who came to the meeting. Fred Simpson, who lives in the apartment complex Beacon Mill Village, said that he was facing a $260 increase in his rent when his lease renews. He said that he and his wife were senior citizens and on a fixed income.
“Even if the commission that’s being proposed takes time beyond our lease, to me it’s worth it to let this thing go through and let it get started happening,” said Simpson.
A new state law
Last spring, the state legislature required municipalities with a population of over 25,000 people to create fair rent commissions – municipal bodies that can hear tenant complaints about excessive rents or neglected maintenance. The commissions have the power to penalize landlords if they believe the rent to be “harsh and unconscionable” under the circumstances.
While Beacon Falls, with a population of about 6,000, falls well below the state population threshold, the town can still create this type of commission if popular opinion desires it.
The proposed Fair Rent Commission in Beacon Falls would have had seven representatives, including two tenants, two landlords and three additional community members. It would also have been able to fine landlords if they did not comply with a rent reduction ordered by the commission.
First Selectman Gerard Smith warned citizens before the vote that there was no way to know what the cost would be to the town of having the fair rent commission. He said the cost would largely depend on legal fees if the disputes about rent had to be brought to court. He also said the town would have needed to hire a clerk for the commission, who would have to research rents.
“So just be aware as you go forward — this does offer protection to tenants. It also does bring a significant expense that we don’t know what it could be to the taxpayers of the town of Beacon Falls,” said Smith.
And not everyone agreed with the idea.
One resident, Richard Gard, said he was concerned that the town would find itself responsible for millions of dollars in legal fees. Another said she was concerned about what it would mean for people who wanted to rent out their homes.
“My concern is what liability will this bring to our town and how it will affect the individual homeowners that live in this town who have equal rights to the decisions made regarding what course of action is taken,” said Jill Witt, who lives in Chatfield Farms. “I think you should consider … how it would impact you if you had to rent out your home — if your spouse died or something like that.”
One landlord named John Smith told CT Examiner that while he saw the renters’ point of view, a landlord needed to be able to collect rent money to pay for fixes to a property.
“I feel sorry for them, but the landlord’s got their problems, too,” said Smith.
Smith also said he felt it was “dangerous” to have an additional avenue for people to bring complaints.
“I think you’ll have an awful lot of people complaining about a lot of things,” said Smith.
First Selectman Gerard Smith said he felt the reason the proposal was rejected was because of the potential costs.
“It’s been debated around town for a long time, and I think … the fear of the unknown of what it was gonna cost to town is what really drove it,” said Smith.
Kathy Johnson said she felt the first selectman’s comments before the vote about potential costs had pushed people against voting for the fair rent commission, and said she was “appalled” by it.
But Smith said that he was obligated to present the costs.
“I feel for everybody at the park, but at the end of the day, I represent everybody in Beacon Falls,” said Smith. “I represent all the people, and I was elected to do what’s in the best interest of Beacon Falls. And
the best interest of Beacon Falls was to protect the asset.”
The proposal was voted down 39-78.
Dana, a resident of River’s Edge, told CT Examiner she wasn’t surprised by the results — she assumed that many of the attendees at the meeting were landlords.
She told CT Examiner that the park residents planned to work with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, State Sen. Jorge Cabrera, D-Hamden and the Connecticut Manufactured Homeowners Alliance to push for Connecticut to adopt a law similar to the one in New York State that caps annual rent increases at 3 percent of the current rent.
“We may [have] lost at the town level, but we’re pushing forward at a state level,” she told CT Examiner in a text message.
Cabrera, who attended the meeting on Tuesday, told CT Examiner that he was disappointed about the vote outcome, but that he felt this may be a problem that needs to be dealt with on a state level, since the problem wasn’t isolated to Beacon Falls.
“My bottom line is I just want to make sure these folks can stay in their home and that they aren’t having to deal with really unreasonable increases in rent,” he said.
This story has been updated with additional comments from Athena Real Estate and corrected to indicate that the cap for Fair Rent Commissions is 25,000 residents.