In the last decade and a half, developers have populated Stamford’s skyline with dozens of apartment high-rises, built with a caveat.
Because of the steep cost of housing in Stamford, developers must charge less than the going rate for 10 percent of the apartments in a building.
It’s a requirement of the city’s Below Market Rate program, which has helped Stamford lead the region in number of affordable units built.
The total affordable units spurred by the program is approaching 1,100 – enough BMR units to fill more than four of the high-rises now found in the South End and downtown.
But the program may have grown beyond what city officials can manage.
At Infinity, a 22-story building in the Harbor Point development on the South End, Dorothy Ghiorzo is about to be evicted from her two-bedroom BMR apartment.
Her story illustrates what the BMR program does for people who cannot afford market-rate housing in Stamford, and how the program fails them.
One of the first
Ghiorzo, a preschool teacher, qualified for a BMR unit at Infinity when it opened 10 years ago. She moved in with her two children, then aged 7 and 6.
“I was one of the first residents at Infinity,” Ghiorzo said. “I loved living here.”
The 242-unit high-rise at 201 Commons Park South was built in 2012 by Harbor Point developer Building & Land Technology. In 2014, BLT sold Infinity to Clarion Partners.
In 2017, Ghiorzo said, condensation began to form on the windows, a problem reported by other Infinity residents. Water seeped into the apartment from the windows, she said.
“It turned into mildew and mold. Lincoln, the management company at the time, would clean it and repaint the walls,” Ghiorzo said. “They would tell me, ‘If it starts again, let us know.’”
That year, Ghiorzo got married. In 2018, she and her husband, Jose, a Marine Corps veteran, had a daughter. In 2019, they had a son, making them a family of six.
Occupancy of a two-bedroom apartment is limited to four people, so once the children were no longer babies, the family would have to find a three-bedroom apartment. According to BMR policy, a family in that situation may be placed at the top of the waiting list for a larger unit.
At the end of 2019, Clarion sold Infinity to AJH Management, a New Jersey company.
Things began to slip, Ghiorzo said.
“I would put in work orders and they would say they would send somebody but they didn’t,” Ghiorzo said. “The mold was getting worse.”
In early 2020, AJH Maintenance Manager Velson Dodaj had the family move out of the apartment for several days while workers remediated the mold.
“He told us we would have to pay to clean it up next time because we were causing water to drip on the windows because we turn up the heat too high,” Ghiorzo said. “But many times the heat isn’t even on. The water is dripping because the windows need to be replaced.”
Effort to evict
In September 2020, Ghiorzo’s lease expired, and she received an eviction notice from Infinity Property Manager Nikki Dodaj, Velson Dodaj’s daughter. One notice, which Ghiorzo shared with CT Examiner, came by email. Two more notices came by phone, Ghiorzo said.
“I knew our lease was not being renewed because there were too many of us,” Ghiorzo said. “I had applied for three-bedroom BMR apartments but we were denied because we didn’t meet the income requirements – it was during the COVID pandemic and my husband lost employment.”
She contacted Charter Oak Communities, Stamford’s housing authority, Ghiorzo said. They told her the waiting list for a three-bedroom apartment is very long and they couldn’t help her, Ghiorzo said.
She made a trip to Housing Court, where she learned that Gov. Ned Lamont had issued a moratorium on evictions during the pandemic to prevent people who’d lost their jobs from also losing their homes.
Ghiorzo sent Dodaj an email about the eviction ban.
“I think she knew about the governor’s order,” Ghiorzo said. “But she knew I didn’t know.”
Dodaj stopped sending eviction notices.
Search for three bedrooms
Ghiorzo said she applied for a Section 8 voucher, a rent subsidy program that allows families to find apartments in the private market. But she got nowhere.
“Vouchers are given out by lottery and I didn’t get picked,” Ghiorzo said. “I tried in New York, too, but I didn’t get picked there, either.”
Thousands of apartments have been built in Stamford in the last 15 years, but very few are larger than two bedrooms, and even fewer are offered at below market rate.
Ghiorzo said she contacted Postmark, another Harbor Point high-rise, and was told there is a three-year waiting list for a three-bedroom apartment. She is No. 15 on the waiting list at Allure, also in Harbor Point, Ghiorzo said.
“No one has any idea how long it will take to get into Allure,” she said.
Lamont eventually lifted his eviction ban, and the notices from Dodaj started again, Ghiorzo said. In February she was issued a notice to quit the property.
The matter went to court. A pro bono attorney advised Ghiorzo in a March email, which she shared with CT Examiner, to not pay the rent after the court issued the quit notice, “especially if the money is necessary to move out.”
That got Ghiorzo in more trouble with the court. Now the family faces execution of an eviction order. A court date is set for Dec. 15.
In the meantime, her husband, who works as a cook in Greenwich Public Schools, was diagnosed with cancer. He had surgery and is recovering, and headed back to work, Ghiorzo said.
“I am nervous about him going back, but we need the money,” she said. “He has to change the dressings twice a day. He’s not supposed to lift things but, working in a kitchen, he has to lift things. He’s just not 100 percent well yet.”
‘Is this what anxiety is?’
Two years of worry are wearing, Ghiorzo said.
“I’ve heard people say they have anxiety, but I never had it. Now I feel afraid, I feel nervous, I feel my heart pounding, I have headaches, and I think, ‘Is this what anxiety is?’” Ghiorzo said. “My two older kids are stressed out because they understand what’s going on. I smile for them but there are days when I feel hopeless.”
She wonders whether some of her problems stem from her status as a BMR tenant, Ghiorzo said. The program does not subsidize landlords; it simply requires that they accept lower rents for BMR units.
“They are not supposed to treat anyone different because of their income bracket,” she said. “I never had the feeling that was happening before AJH, but things have changed.”
Under Stamford’s program, each building runs its own BMR units and the Land Use Bureau is supposed to oversee them.
But a recent housing study found that the city does not have the staff to supervise the program, including whether landlords are following regulations for treatment of tenants. Administration is scattered among the different buildings with no centralized way for people to apply for BMR units and no way for the city to track the number of units available or the number of people on waiting lists, the study found.
An email blast
In Ghiorzo’s apartment, the mold has returned worse than ever. Last month she filed a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.
Then she tried one more thing.
She had a friend help her write her story and last week emailed it to Stamford Housing and Community Development Director Emily Gordon, copying members of Mayor Caroline Simmons’ administration, the Stamford Board of Representatives, the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, and state elected officials.
Lauren Meyer, special assistant to Mayor Caroline Simmons, provided the following information about the Ghiorzo case and Stamford’s Below Market Rate housing program:
● The city “routinely seeks to find three-bedroom apartments” for families who fall within maximum incomes set by the federal government and minimums set by landlords
● The number of three-bedrooms is “limited and in high demand” – less than 3 percent of the units available through the BMR program
● Larger families in the BMR program are on “very long wait lists”
● To find a three-bedroom unit, a family must seek assistance from the city housing authority or other affordable housing provider
● Stamford Housing and Community Development Director Emily Gordon contacted the housing authority in February to ask whether the Ghiorzo case could be prioritized but was told the family would have to wait for a unit to become available
● A health inspector has visited the Ghiorzo apartment to check for code violations
● The city can intervene for BMR tenants when a landlord fails to comply with regulations but landlords handle applications, eligibility criteria, tenant selection and wait lists
● The city is looking at resources, staffing and structural changes “to manage the rapidly growing inventory of BMR units”
Some city representatives then visited Ghiorzo. They photographed what appears to be significant growth of black mold.
“There’s mold all over the apartment, and condensation all over the windows, and one of the children has a respiratory disorder,” said city Rep. Kindrea Walston, one of the visitors. “This property management neglect shows that the BMR program needs more oversight. How many people in the program have moved out because repairs were not made? We have no information on this.”
Stamford’s BMR regulations require that tenants in the program are treated exactly the same as tenants who pay market-rate rents, but that may not be the case, said Cynthia Bowser, a West Side neighborhood advocate and retired licensed clinical social worker who also visited Ghiorzo.
“They are truly a family working to reach the American dream. Now they are at risk of homelessness,” Bowser said. “In all the years (Ghiorzo) has lived in that building, no one from the city has done an assessment of how the program is run, or whether BMR tenants are receiving the same services as people who pay market rent. We just don’t know.”
The city should “create an effective survey for people to complete about living in a BMR unit,” Bowser said, and “employ someone with the specific responsibility of making annual contact with each BMR tenant.”
“We have to monitor the building owners and managers to make sure they are doing what they are supposed to do,” Bowser said.
Questions emailed to the Infinity property manager, Nikki Dodaj, and Joe Klein, regional manager for AJH Management, drew no response.
Eyes may be opening
State Rep. David Michel of Stamford has been working with Ghiorzo and other tenants to resolve housing problems. Ghiorzo’s case, and possibly others he’s learned about, are matters for consideration by the state human rights commission, Michel said.
“There appears to be targeting of certain classes of people, whether for financial or racial reasons,” he said.
The Simmons administration must take a look at Infinity’s BMR program, Michel said.
“There needs to be an audit on the 24 BMR units in Infinity. I think it will shed light on all the issues in that building, and maybe in other buildings,” Michel said. “The city has to immediately consider amending its BMR charter to ensure that tenants are protected from abuse.”
Ghiorzo said she felt relief when the visiting city representatives told her the mold infestation and the confusing administration of BMR regulations are unacceptable.
“They said, ‘You don’t have to be afraid any more. You’ve opened up some eyes.’ It made me feel better,” Ghiorzo said. “For the first time in two years, I have a little hope.”