FAIRFIELD – Representative Town Meeting members split along party lines in drafting rules for a state-mandated Fair Rent Commission that Republicans say would strip landlords of their rights and favor tenants.
Last year, Gov. Ned Lamont signed into law a requirement for municipalities with a population of 25,000 or more – like Fairfield – to create fair rent commissions by July 1. Under the law, commissions should conduct hearings on rental charge complaints to “control and eliminate excessive rental charges.”
On Monday, members of Fairfield’s RTM debated a draft fair rent commission ordinance, with several pushing back on the state mandate altogether.
Ed Bateson, a Republican and landlord, said he hates the town ordinance, which was drafted by several RTM Democrats.
“To me, this is another level of government,” Bateson said at the committee meeting. “… I know where this is going. It’s going to be abused.”
Bateson said the draft ordinance – which calls for a five-member commission, including Democratic and Republican members, as well as a landlord and tenant – does not do enough to protect the rights of landlords.
But Michelle McCabe, a Democrat and co-sponsor of the draft ordinance, argued that current tenant protections are lacking in Fairfield where, according to the federal Census Bureau, almost 83 percent of housing is owner-occupied.
“If a landlord raises a rent and somebody doesn’t pay, they can evict them. They have some tools to ensure that people … pay their rent,” McCabe responded. “And this commission is to assist the tenant that doesn’t have those kinds of protections for the bad actors, not for the landlords like you that are doing things the right way.”
Under the draft ordinance, the commission would have the power to subpoena landlords to attend public hearings and determine whether a rent is “harsh and unconscionable” with a simple majority vote – in most cases, three of the five members.
Many Republican members in attendance argued instead for a supermajority vote – four of the five members – to protect landlords. Ken Astarita argued that a ruling in which three members vote to decrease the rent and two vote to maintain the charge is not indicative of an unconscionable increase.
“If it’s egregious and unconscionable, four out of five people should be able to agree that there’s a problem and to address it,” Astarita said.
Republican Pamela Iacono said she feels “very strongly” that a two-thirds vote should be required to adjust a rent charge, adding that other town commissions and boards use the same standards.
“If you’re trying to overturn something that someone has instituted, that should take a two-thirds vote to do it,” Iacono said. “It’s a standing practice really on so, so many boards and commissions.”
But Tom Lambert, a Democrat and co-sponsor of the draft ordinance, argued the inclusion of the term “unconscionable” alone is a safeguard, eliminating the need for a two-thirds majority vote.
“If we had a standard that was a lower standard such as a ‘reasonableness standard,’ you might get people who disagree more frequently as to what is or isn’t reasonable,” Lambert explained. “But when you have a standard that’s heightened – what’s conscionable or unconscionable – I think that that’s the protection.”
Republican members also requested a clear definition of “unconscionable,” as it is not included in the state law or draft ordinance. Member Karen McCormack said the lacking definition and guidelines in the ordinance present an issue.
The draft ordinance does, however, provide 12 circumstances for the commission to consider when issuing its ruling, including the size of the property, rents for similar properties, utility costs and the income of the petitioner.
McCormack asked whether a tenant of a beachfront property who lost their job and can no longer afford rent could appeal to the commission. McCabe said they would not.
“This ordinance would be – somebody is renting a beachfront property, and the landlord decides that they’re going to triple the rent,” McCabe responded. “… And it becomes, therefore, unaffordable.”
But McCormack disagreed, saying the ordinance calls for commissioners to determine whether a rental charge or a proposed increase in rent is excessive.
“So, it does apply in a situation where somebody loses their job and the rent is too high given their income,” McCormack said. “That is absolutely something that can be taken into account by this commission.”
McCormack said she understands the state has mandated the commission, but implored members to require more than a simple majority to protect landlords.
“This commission is going to have subpoena power over people. You’re taking rights away from people,” she said. “They’re required to come before a commission and defend their name, defend the reputation of their character in a town because they’re being accused of being a slumlord.”
RTM Democratic Caucus Leader Liz Zezima said she understands members have concerns but wishes they were “doing the work.”
Because Democrats are the majority party on the RTM, Zezima explained, they invite the minority party to participate in working groups to draft ordinances. The request for Republicans to work on the fair rent commission ordinance was turned down, she said.
“Those who are doing the work come under inquisition-style questioning,” Zezima said of the Democratic co-sponsors. “So, I want to make sure everybody understands – there’s a reason there’s only one party sitting up there.”
Several Republicans indicated on Monday that they would not vote in favor of the ordinance unless the requested changes are made. RTM Moderator Mark McDermott reminded members that the body would not be taking up the vote until June 26.
Republican First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick was unavailable for comment on the issue.