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New Haven could be among the first in CT to recognize tenant unions under local law

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 12: A woman cleans the windows of her apartment in a public housing complex on April 12, 2022 in the Lower East Side neighborhood of New York City, New York. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
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Familiar to renters in New York (above), a tenant union was created last summer in New Haven. It could be Connecticut's first to be recognized by a local government.

As Connecticut tenants face skyrocketing rents and an uptick in no-fault evictions, some renters in large apartment complexes are unionizing in hopes of demanding change. And now tenant unions in New Haven could be some of the first in Connecticut to be recognized by their local government.

Quinnipiac Gardens Tenant Union, which formed last summer, is leading a push to ask the city to formally recognize tenant unions and give them a role in investigations through the city’s Fair Rent Commission. Fair rent commissions, local boards that are slowly expanding across Connecticut, could help tenants dispute rent increases in an area where renters usually have two options – bargain with the landlord or leave.

“It’s important because there is no rent control here in Connecticut. Landlords raise the rents, don’t fix and nothing gets done. But if we all work together, we can accomplish a lot of things,” said Enid Mendez, a tenant union member at Quinnipiac Gardens.

Mendez moved to Connecticut from New York about five years ago to get away from the rush. She never imagined the move would lead to joining a tenant union.

“I knew about them in New York, but I never heard of it in Connecticut. So when they [organizers] came by, I was curious,” Mendez said.

While her two-bedroom unit was in relatively good condition, she heard more and more from her neighbors in the complex and soon realized how much they could use her support. She recalls tenants citing problems with lighting, roads, paint chipping, mold and more.

She said joining the union has given her a better sense of tenant protections in the state, but there’s still a long way to go. And that’s where recognition from the city comes in.

The union presented its demands to the city last year, and earlier in June, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker introduced an ordinance that would formally allow tenants to use their collective power as a union. The proposed ordinance would define tenant unions, give them a role in the Fair Rent Commission process and expand the list of factors the commission should consider when evaluating rent increases.

“Your average person does not understand how to navigate these bureaucracies or what kind of information they need to know going in to make their case,” said Luke Melonakos-Harrison, an organizer who helped the union for at Quinnipiac Gardens. He’s with the Connecticut Tenants Union.

Tenants who want to dispute a rent increase must file a complaint with their Fair Rent Commission office, cooperate with the investigation, attend a preliminary hearing and potentially attend a public hearing before the board, according to the New Haven Fair Rent Commission’s webpage.

“So a big part of what the tenant unions found helpful and necessary was to give neighbors the opportunity to kind of advocate for each other, help walk each other through those bureaucratic systems and also present evidence collectively,” Melonakos-Harrison said.

While tenants would still have to file complaints individually, a tenant union representative could help them through the process. And tenant union members can testify on one another’s behalf.

Melonakos-Harrison says the push was inspired by labor unions forming across the country, including at big-name companies like Starbucks and Amazon.

“A long-term goal is absolutely to have mechanisms for tenants and landlords to engage in collective bargaining. So the idea of giving the tenant unions the ability to sort of collectively engage with the Fair Rent Commission is a start,” he said.

But for now, the short-term goal is to help tenants understand what resources they have and how best to use them. The proposed ordinance must still be vote on by the New Haven Board of Alders.

Camila Vallejo is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. She is a bilingual reporter based out of Fairfield County and welcomes all story ideas at cvallejo@ctpublic.org.
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