NORWICH — Tenants of a rooming house on Cliff Street spent the day scrambling to find shelter after the city’s building department condemned the home last week.
Resident Monica Mailly said she had learned from the building department on Thursday that the tenants would need to leave by Monday.
Dan Coley, the chief building official for the Norwich Building Department, told CT Examiner that the city sent an inspector to the building after it received complaints from a tenant about a blocked exit door. During the inspection, he said, the city found broken tiles at the top of one of the stairs and an exit door jammed shut.
According to Coley, the building was a four-family home, and did not meet the requirements for operating legally as a boarding or rooming house. He said the rooms in a boarding house must have “fire separation requirements,” so if one room catches on fire, the others would not also go up in flames.
A sign placed on the front porch warned that utilities would be turned off starting Sept. 12.
According to Coley, the building’s landlord, Darien-based Cliff Street Construction LLC, also owns a house on Laurel Hill Avenue, where a 3-year-old fell out of a third-story window on Sunday. The building department later found “safety hazards” in two bedrooms in the apartment.
It’s unclear how many people were living in the Cliff Street house — Coley said he estimated 12, but Mailly placed the number at closer to 20.
Mailly told CT Examiner that she and her husband, who has epilepsy, moved into the rooming house in December. They left in March after finding temporary work at a campground, and then returned in June. She said they paid about $800 a month for a room.
After finding out the house would be condemned, she said she went to the city’s Department of Human Services, who told her there was nothing they could do to help. Mailly also said she called a homeless shelter, but was told it was full.
In desperation, she set up a GoFundMe page.
Kate Milde, Norwich’s director of human services, told CT Examiner that the nonprofits that placed these tenants at the rooming house — including St. Vincent DePaul and the New London Homeless Hospitality Center — needed to do a better job of vetting the buildings that their clients were being rehoused in.
“There was a lack of research done leading up to the placement,” Milde said. “The due diligence was not done. Now people are being displaced.”
According to Milde, if a lawful apartment building is condemned, the Department of Human Services will help relocate the tenants and the landlord would be responsible for footing the bill. The department would also pay for things like moving expenses and first month’s rent to help tenants find a place to stay. A lien would then be placed on the house. But because the rooming house was unlawful, Milde said, there are questions about whether the tenants are eligible for these services.
Milde said there are federal coronavirus relief funds and money for rapid rehousing that the tenants could qualify for, but they would need to complete an intake process.
“We don’t administer aid without a rigorous paperwork process,” she said, adding that the department worked through the weekend and took emergency walk-in appointments to help tenants. She also said she hopes the nonprofit organizations that placed people at the rooming house will help find them new homes.
“I take it personally when people say that we’re not doing anything to help,” Milde said.
St. Vincent de Paul did not return a request for comment from CT Examiner on Monday.
Cathy Zall, director of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, said that while her organization does perform basic fire safety checks for places where their clients are relocating, they will not interfere with a client deciding where they to stay.
“If somebody says, ‘I’m going to go and live with my grandmother, and I’m going to be in her apartment,’ … or ‘I’m going to go and stay in this particular place,’ which is renting rooms on the open market … we’re not going to interfere with that,” she said. “We will go and look and make sure the smoke detectors work. We’ll make sure that there’s no kind of obvious fire safety issues. But we are not in the position of making judgments about where people should live.”
Absent any safety violations, Zall said, offering options for multiple people to stay in a single apartment was extremely important. Losing those options would mean a loss of affordable housing and leave people with nowhere to go, she said.
“The unfortunate truth is that shared housing, or what some people like to call boarding houses — which is not necessarily the same thing — is an absolutely critical option if you don’t want dozens, if not more, of people experiencing homelessness and very limited income to have nowhere to live,” Zall said.
According to Norwich’s zoning code, Coley said, up to five unrelated people can share an apartment — one to two people per bedroom. The problem with the Cliff Street house, he said, was that the landlord was renting out each bedroom individually.
“If the landlord’s putting people in there, and the people don’t get along and they don’t like each other … they tend to stay in their rooms. And when they start staying in their rooms, then they start cooking in their rooms. So they put in a mini fridge, and they put in a microwave, and they might even put in a hot plate, and that presents a serious risk of fire,” Coley said.
The city has asked the landlord to find additional housing options for the tenants, he said. Some people might get help through the human services department, while others may be able to stay in the building with a legitimate lease, he added.
On Monday evening, Mailly told CT Examiner she managed to finally speak to the landlord, who she said is paying for the tenants to stay at a hotel overnight.
But tomorrow, Mailly said, she’ll have to return to the Department of Human Services.