STAMFORD – Tenants fed up with large rent hikes, poor maintenance, and landlord retaliation have been organizing unions in Connecticut for two years, but not in Fairfield County.
Now a tenants union has arrived.
The residents of Coleman Towers on Spruce Street in Stamford have voted to join the Connecticut Tenants Union, which demands rights for renters statewide.
“The vote was unanimous,” said Nicole Beckham, an elected representative of the Coleman Towers union. “This is a way to empower residents. We are sticking together. Nothing we are asking for is unreasonable. We feel it is a benefit for the building owner, too, because when people have a voice, they buy in. They take pride in where they live.”
Residents had been meeting informally for more than a year, since the owner of Coleman Towers began renovating the 1971 building, Beckham said.
Residents have been living in a dirty, dusty, noisy construction site that was warmed by space heaters over the winter. They were moved in and out of apartments as construction progressed from floor to floor, or had to move out of the building altogether.
Coleman Towers was a cooperative in which residents owned their own units. But it went bankrupt and was purchased two years ago by a New York commercial real estate company.
The owner, Solomon Kinraich, is remodeling the units and increasing the number from 89 to 132. In a deal that included a large tax break from the city and millions of dollars in financing from the state, Kinraich agreed to offer most of the renovated units, 115, at affordable rents.
It’s been tough on tenants, Beckham said. The building had about 100 residents, many of whom lived there for decades, but only about 20 remain.
‘Let’s start a union’
Over the months, tenants have sought meetings with Kinraich and with Mayor Caroline Simmons, hoping to get relief from the living conditions at Coleman Towers, Beckham said.
“We never got the mayor in a meeting. We would get someone from her office, but questions weren’t answered and nothing productive got done,” Beckham said. “We felt the city just let us down. These are people we elected. You knocked on our doors at election time, but when we needed you, you failed us.”
So Coleman Towers residents were interested when they heard about the Connecticut Tenants Union, she said. They asked organizer Luke Melonakos Harrison, vice president of the Connecticut Tenants Union, to meet with them on Sunday, Beckham said.
“It was perfect, because it was just before the meeting we finally got with the building owner and the mayor, which was on Tuesday,” she said.
During the Sunday meeting, Coleman Towers tenants wasted no time, Beckham said.
“We listened to what [Harrison] had to say and we said, ‘Let’s start a union,’” she said. “We held the vote right there.”
It went smoothly because “there are a lot of deep relationships” in Coleman Towers, Harrison said.
“Unlike the average apartment building, most people know each other at Coleman Towers. It was a good foundation for organizing a union,” Harrison said. “They said they wanted to show up at their meeting with the building owner as a legitimate organization. They formed a negotiating team. Then they went into their meeting [Tuesday] and announced themselves as a newly formed tenants union and put their proposals on the table.”
A growing movement
Coleman Towers tenants “came in with five categories – communications, health and safety, unit sizes, living conditions during construction, and halting rent increases until construction is complete,” Harrison said. “Their core thing is a plan for further communication. They want more meetings, not a one-off where tenants share their stories and hear nice-sounding promises and nothing comes out of it.”
Coleman Towers is the 10th tenants union in the state, and more are coming, Harrison said.
“We can’t keep up with the demand. How do we give people the training and resources they need to do this?” Harrison said. “Labor unions have large staffs, people whose entire job is to organize new workplaces. We’re trying to catch up to that. It’s why we took a pause this summer to pass a constitution and formalize our structure. We’re growing too fast to be able to do what we have to do.”
In late July the Connecticut Tenants Union adopted a constitution and elected officers, moving from a loose network of small unions to a formal organization prepared to lobby at the state capitol for tenants’ interests and compete with groups that lobby on behalf of landlords.
“We went from a network of people trying to learn from each other to a ratified organization with a governance structure,” he said.
One reason tenants are organizing is that Connecticut offers few protections for them. No state law requires landlords to engage with tenant unions, so tenants are encouraged to work with city governments.
Last year the state legislature passed a law mandating that every municipality with at least 25,000 residents establish a Fair Rent Commission. But, in most towns, commissions exist only on paper, Harrison has said.
Most tenants don’t know that such commissions can order landlords to reduce rent in certain cases, launch investigations, and subpoena records, and most commissions are reluctant to use their powers unless tenants demand it, Harrison has said.
Strength in numbers
Tenants have less fear of retaliation when they can report landlord problems as a union, organizers say. It also gives tenants more clout when approaching city governments.
Tenants in Stamford need a lot of support, said city Rep. Bonnie Kim Campbell, whose District 5 includes Coleman Towers.
“I am 100 percent for a tenants union, because residents need to be able to govern themselves, and they need to be able to speak to property managers or owners,” Campbell said. “I’m so proud of the people at Coleman Towers.”
Residents have called to ask for her help with problems that arise from living in a building under construction, Campbell said. She recently got a 6 a.m. call from residents who said the water was turned off while they were showering.
“I called [the mayor’s chief of staff] Bridget Fox, and she was able to get the water turned back on by noon instead of 3 p.m. But the residents need longer-term solutions than that,” Campbell said. “They have had problems communicating. At one point they said they were going to go see the mayor in her office with no appointment. I said, ‘What if you have to wait?’ They said, ‘We’ll wait.’ I said, ‘What if they try to throw you out?’ They said, ‘We’ll sit on the floor.’ I was ready to go with them, but then the Tuesday meeting came up.”
The Simmons administration backs the efforts of Coleman Towers residents, said Lauren Meyer, special assistant to the mayor.
“We applaud the Coleman Towers residents for their leadership in advocating for tenants’ rights and look forward to continuing to work with them to support residents’ needs,” Meyer wrote in an email Thursday.
Coleman Towers property manager Jessica Jaffer did not return a phone message left Thursday at her office.
Beckham, who works as a residential services coordinator for Family Centers, a nonprofit health and human services provider, said the Coleman Towers owner and property manager have been responsive so far.
“We have a starting point,” Beckham said.
Because of her background, she can help fellow tenants in Coleman Towers and other buildings navigate the system, Beckham said.
“I will follow protocols and escalate accordingly,” she said. “I hope I can be of service to any building that wants to start a union.”