Stamford Tenants in Below Market Rate Units Vulnerable to Non-Compliant Landlords

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STAMFORD — A well-regarded affordable housing program in Stamford was designed to be fair.

Tenants in the program who pay below market rate rents for apartments in the city’s luxury high-rises are supposed to be treated exactly the same as tenants who pay market rate.

But that’s not happening, tenants of a 242-unit high-rise in the Harbor Point development told the Stamford Board of Representatives’ Housing Committee Thursday.

One below market rate tenant said she booked her building’s community room to throw a small graduation party for her daughter, leaving a $500 security deposit check with the property manager as required.

When she tried to reclaim the check after the party, however, she learned it had been cashed, the woman said. She was told it was because security video showed her setting up the community room for the party in the minutes before the booked time. The tenant said she asked repeatedly to view the video but the property manager did not show it to her.

She kept pressing the office for her money, the woman said. During that time she went away for a time and, on her return, found evidence that someone had been in her apartment and slept in her bed. Now she is fearful, waking up at night to make sure her door is locked, the woman said. She still doesn’t have her $500, she said.

Another below market rate tenant reported that he got an eviction notice after he and his wife had a third child. They were told they had exceeded the occupancy guidelines for their two-bedroom apartment, the man reported. He later learned that the family has time to remain in their apartment because the occupancy guidelines exclude children under 18 months. He didn’t know about the guidelines or where to find them.

A third below market rate tenant told the committee she repeatedly reported condensation forming on her windows and sliding glass doors, resulting in an ever-growing amount of black mold on her walls. It went on for many months, sickening her children, until a fellow tenant helped her, the woman said.

A Good Samaritan

The person who helped her is a market rate tenant who said it’s not fair that building managers take advantage of his neighbors, some of whom work multiple jobs and don’t have the time, resources, or access to information needed to fight back.

He researched documents, wrote emails to the property office and  reached out to city and state officials, the man told the Housing Committee. The man, who does not want his name publicized, said he has the means and educational background to do that work, but it was not easy. 

He got no results until he contacted elected officials, he said.

After he did that, the property manager retaliated by refusing to renew his lease, he said. He has moved out of the building.

One of the elected officials he contacted was state Rep. David Michel, whose district includes Harbor Point.

Michel told the committee that he’d been hearing from below market rate tenants from several buildings for more than a year. Michel said he also had a hard time finding someone in city hall to help the tenants.

“It shows there are many flaws with city authority, too much power in the hands of building owners, and barely any protections for these residents,” Michel said.

Housing and Community Development Director Emily Gordon, who oversees Stamford’s below market rate program, said it is actually a zoning regulation. It requires that new residential developments with 10 or more units assign 10 percent of them as below market rate for the life of the building. 

Each property company manages its own below market rate units, including maintaining wait lists and verifying tenant incomes. Some companies do it themselves; others hire a contractor or contract with the Stamford housing authority to do it.

Gordon said her office does not have the “authority or expertise” to help tenants with many of the problems they face.

“We can’t address health and safety, discrimination, evictions,” Gordon said. “We refer tenants to other services for that.”

She displayed a chart showing telephone numbers for 28 city and state agencies tenants can call, depending on their issue.

Resolution, not retribution

Her office can only see that each apartment building adheres to its individual plan for below market rate units, which must be filed yearly, Gordon said.

“We learn about most violations from the annual reports,” she said. “If we find problems, we try to work toward resolution.”

It’s not a lot of protection for Stamford’s most financially vulnerable residents, city representatives said. 

According to Gordon, below market rate tenants earn an average annual household income of about $45,000. They most often are health-care, clerical, and cleaning services workers, she said. 

They rely on lower rental costs.

Monthly rent for a typical market rate one-bedroom apartment, for example, is $2,125, according to Gordon. A below market rate tenant would pay about $1,000 less. 

Rent for a market rate two-bedroom is about $2,650; a below market rate tenant would pay roughly half that. Tenants must be recertified each year to ensure they meet the income thresholds. 

Stamford’s below market rate program has been credited with creating most of the affordable apartments built in Fairfield County in the last decade. Gordon said it’s about 1,100 units so far.

It needs better oversight, members of the Board of Representatives’ Housing Committee said.

City Rep. Kindrea Walston asked about landlords who target below market rate tenants or fail to follow program guidelines.

“Can any action be taken against the (building owner) if they’re not in compliance?” Walson asked.

“We are in partnership with the building owners and the tenants,  so we try for compliance,” Gordon said. “We don’t issue a violation unless we see repeat problems or the landlord not making progress toward compliance.”

The committee co-chair, city Rep. Mavina Moore, wanted to know what happens to a family in the program when they outgrow their apartment.

“Do we work with them?” Moore asked. “Do they get put on the street?”

Gordon said that if the family lives in a building that has three-bedroom apartments, they can move to the top of the wait list for that building. If not, they can get on a wait list for another building with three-bedroom units.

But there’s a problem.

What developers don’t do

Gordon said that, among the 1,100 below market rate units, only 20 are three-bedrooms. Developers like building studios and one- and two-bedroom units, she said.

“We get only what developers are producing, and we’re not getting enough three-bedroom units. Ownership is another example. We’re not seeing a lot of development of ownership units,” Gordon said. “We can’t tell developers what to build.”

Ownership units are created only when developers who don’t want to build below market rate units obtain a permit to pay money into the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund instead. The city can use the fund to build units for ownership.

The city is letting developers off too easy, city Rep. Jeff Stella said.

“We can tell developers you’re not getting a permit to build more one-bedrooms. We can take a stand and say this is what we need. We don’t have to approve a building with no three-bedroom units,” Stella said. “The same thing for ownership. Rent for a one- or two-bedroom apartment costs more than a mortgage for a house. Ownership changes people’s lives; it creates wealth for the next generation. We have to do a better job with zoning and demand larger apartments and ownership units.”

City Rep. Rob Roqueta, the committee co-chair, said the wait list should be centralized so prospective below market rate tenants don’t have to apply to multiple buildings and repeatedly check multiple wait lists.

Gordon said that’s been a goal, and her office is working on a plan. 

The below market rate program keeps growing and her office needs more resources, she said. 

Bridget Fox, chief of staff to Mayor Caroline Simmons, said the administration is “committed to do whatever we can to address this … very complex issue.” 

The mayor’s budget, due in early March, will include a request for money for “more staffing around housing,” Fox said.

Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.