Fighting back: How some Connecticut tenants are organizing to improve their housing
Bouncing as she walked, plastic heels clacking on the concrete as she swished her colorful "Encanto" costume, 4-year-old Ayla pointed to the sidewalk in front of her.
“Watch out for the holes,” she warned.
Ayla — not her real name — has lived in the Wedgewood Apartments in Bloomfield nearly all her life. (The Connecticut Mirror and Connecticut Public agreed to the family's request not to identify the child.)
When her family first moved there, they thought it would be a good place for her to grow up. They moved into the apartment after living at a hotel and didn’t want Ayla to experience the housing instability they’d felt.
But as time went on and the apartment was sold to a new company, Arba Equities, conditions deteriorated. The property is managed by Up Realty.
Bathtub paint is peeling off, the windows don’t close properly and the closet door hangs askew, to name just a few of the repairs the family has asked the landlord to make in recent months.
“It's a slap in the face … How long do you give them a chance? How long do you get?” asked Donna Curry, Ayla's grandmother, referring to the landlord she hasn't met since the new company took over in 2020.
Curry is hardly alone in her frustration. She and other residents at Wedgewood decided to fight back by forming a tenants union — one piece in a growing movement across Connecticut.
Tenants unions form as collective bargaining organizations to address issues such as maintenance problems, rent raises and evictions, among other disputes. Tenant organizing grew in popularity during the pandemic, notably in New York City where tenants organized to fight for rent cancellations.
Similar to labor unions, they find strength in numbers. And while they aren’t new, they have gained momentum in Connecticut over the past year, with at least five tenants unions having formed with the help of a group called Connecticut Tenants Union.
In Connecticut, protections for people who rent their homes are limited.
Tenants who join unions are shielded from landlord retaliation for six months after the union forms, according to a law passed in the 1970s. But the recent movement is leading to other potential protections.
In New Haven, an ordinance that would allow unions to issue complaints to the city’s fair rent commission as a collective is being considered, one recent example of government recognition of tenants unions in Connecticut. The union that brought the request was formed in opposition to alleged poor conditions at the Quinnipiac Gardens complex.
The ability to complain as a union to the fair rent commission — which has the authority to curb unfair rent increases — means that tenants can complain with less fear of retaliation.
Another union has formed at the Seramonte Estates apartments in Hamden over the past few months. Among tenants’ primary concerns is what they’ve described as excessive car towing — their cars are towed for negligible offenses, they say, and are sometimes sold before they’re able to get them back.
“This [a union] is a tool that people are using to fight back and it’s definitely growing, and people have interest in it because there just aren't that many other options unfortunately,” said Joe Hermann, an organizer with Connecticut Tenants Union who has worked with tenants at the Wedgewood Apartments. “We see the tenant union as a way to kind of skew the balance of power more towards them [tenants] in any fights against the landlord.”
What makes a union work
Government support — state, federal or local — is integral to the success of a tenants union, said Bridgett Simmons, a staff attorney at the National Housing Law Project.
Localities can set aside money to help these organizations, and the government can step in to ensure that tenants’ voices are heard by requiring housing authorities to allocate funding for tenant councils, particularly for federal housing overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Simmons said.
That’s only required at public housing, although there are efforts to expand the mandate to the housing choice voucher program, Simmons added.
“Tenant unions are essential to all of this working,” she said. “Whether it’s subsidized housing or non-subsidized housing. Organized groups are going to be what gets better landlord-tenant laws.”
This movement is especially important because many renters were impacted by the pandemic, said Paula Franzeze, a housing law professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. As some tenants face poor living conditions and “staggering” rent increases across the country, this is a way to fight back, Franzeze added.
But they can’t do it alone.
“While a tenant union, in the best of worlds, becomes a viable, reasonable actor, able on behalf of individual tenants to engage with the landlord, that's not guaranteed,” Franzeze said. “In many places, the landlord is under no duty to have to engage.”
She points to recent nationwide-first legislation in San Francisco that requires landlords to at least meet with tenants unions.
“It is in the landlord’s best interest to engage. It promotes good tenant relations, and certainly enhanced tenant satisfaction leads to high tenant retention rates,” she said.
In Connecticut, landlords aren’t required to engage with the unions. Without acknowledgment from landlords, unions are left with few options to change their living conditions, but that’s where local governments can intervene.
In Bloomfield, the Wedgewood union is working with local city councilors and the deputy mayor to find solutions to their problems. Earlier this month, tenants met with city officials to discuss solutions.
Among the possible solutions a union organizer pitched during that meeting are fining landlords for code violations, conducting broader and random inspections and offering tenants money for relocation, possibly with the money the city received through the American Rescue Plan Act.
“I wouldn’t want animals to be in that type of environment, much less our residents,” Bloomfield Deputy Mayor Gregory Davis said during a public forum in August.
Bloomfield Town Councilor Rickford Kirton has pushed for solutions.
“These are human beings being subjected to this type of living,” Kirton said. “And I know we're very prideful in this town. … But this is happening right here in our town.
“It's been hard for me to — at nights — look my children in the eyes, and knowing that there are residents in our town, little kids, your daughter,” he said, gesturing to Kristine Pisani, another union member. “… to see that she was subjected to that really bothered me.” Pisani is the mother of a toddler and a teenager; the family moved out of the complex last month.
Organizing to improve conditions can offer an alternative to moving, which is near impossible for many renters. Moving is difficult for myriad reasons — their children are in school, they have access to public transportation to work and, most commonly, it’s too expensive to move, especially with rising rents.
For example, Curry’s rent is $1,400 a month. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Bloomfield is $2,312, according to rent.com. And Connecticut has one of the lowest vacancy rates in the country, making it tough to find an open spot.
Add to that the costs of a security deposit and physically moving belongings to a new place and it becomes untenable for the family, unless they’re offered some kind of assistance.
“A lot of us don't want to stay here,” Curry said. “We don't want to stay here. But where are we going to go? Give us the money to go. I'd be glad if he gives me a check right now. I don't want it to go shopping. What I want is to have somewhere for my granddaughters and my son and my daughter and myself to move out of here and go somewhere else.”
‘I can’t have her living like that’
At the Wedgewood Apartments, complaints to the local Health Department increased slightly this year. There were five complaints in the entirety of 2021 and seven in just the first six months of 2022.
Complaints mention drafty windows, a problem with a smoke detector, mold, appliances that don’t function and rat feces.
Attorneys for the landlord, Arba Equities LLC, didn’t respond to requests for comment by press time, and messages to Up Realty went unanswered. Reporters reached out more than half a dozen times over two months this summer.
In interviews with reporters, tenants raised concerns about mold, standing water in the basement, the conditions of the pool and grounds, and windows and doors that don't seal properly.
Reporters from the Connecticut Mirror and Connecticut Public Radio confirmed many of these conditions through public records requests for code inspection reports, police reports, housing authority records and in-person visits to the apartment complex.
Curry’s family found the Wedgewood Apartments in 2019 after a stint of homelessness. At first, they said, the apartments were nice. But since then, conditions have deteriorated.
The sink leaks, and the front door is scratched, revealing soft, damp wood underneath the painted surface. They fear the landlord is trying to push people out in order to raise rents, pointing to a recent eviction filed against another member of the union.
“We have to be here for more [time] and I cry. I cry because I don't want to sleep in my car again. I don't want to sleep outside,” Curry said, pointing to her granddaughter. “ … I can't have her living like that.”
Ayla has developed a fear of taking baths because of the tub’s condition. Even though her grandmother tries to distract her from the chipped paint with toys, she still calls the bathtub scary.
When she accompanied her mother to a recent tenants meeting in Bloomfield, Ayla drew a picture of her fear on a reporter's notes. The drawing showed a bathtub lined with toys with flecks of ink depicting the peeling paint, Ayla herself lying flat in the tub, while her mother sits in a chair next to her, with big, round tears dripping off her face.
The union has submitted a list of demands to the landlord, asking that properly licensed maintenance professionals respond to requests within 24 hours with a plan of action and that they make urgent repairs immediately and keep the buildings in compliance with housing codes. The union also asked that building materials be removed from common areas, that the landscape be maintained and that building doors be secured.
The union’s letter also demands that management stop retaliating against tenants by rescinding eviction and lease termination notices, forgiving rental debt that can’t be verified, offering payment plans for rental debts that can be verified and providing lease renewals at the previous monthly rate.
Representatives for the landlord, Arba Equities, have not responded to repeated requests for comment.
Union member Kristine Pisani is among those who believe she faces retaliation. Despite months of attempting to contact her landlord when she fell behind on rent, she said, she has been forced to find new housing after a court mediation agreement in July. She owed two months of rent, according to court documents.
She first missed a rent payment because she lost wages from work when she had COVID-19 and next because of an injury to her foot.
The problems at her apartment have compounded in recent months. She had a leak in her ceiling that left what appeared to be mold that spread in the rugs and onto her teenage daughter's backpack.
Her 2-year-old daughter, who is delayed in many major motor skills such as walking, contracted an infection that spread in swollen bumps across her cheek.
Her sewage has been backed up, she said, and a few months ago authorities were called to the apartment to respond to a gas leak. Her ceiling also leaked, according to emails she sent management over the course of weeks as early as February.
These problems were addressed slowly, and repairs were often incomplete if they were made at all, tenants said.
“I feel it was discriminatory,” Pisani said, tying her union membership to her eviction. “Because they worked with me right up until the new year.”
Several other tenants said they too have been given notice to vacate the premises in recent months. Court records show that official eviction filings have been initiated against five tenants at the Bloomfield property this year.
One of the union’s grievances is that many tenants weren’t offered new annual leases when the management company took over. This means those now living under month-to-month leases or no lease at all are easier to kick out of their homes, according to a letter the union sent to management.
Lease renewals have also been a problem at the Seramonte Apartments in Hamden. The major problem, however, has been excessive towing, according to residents.
North Point Management Corp. took over at Seramonte in 2020. Representatives for the company didn’t return requests for comment for this story, and union members say they haven't heard back from the company about their demands.
The management company has an agreement with Oakville-based towing company MyHoopty. Tenants say their cars have been towed for minor violations and, in some instances, sold before they can be retrieved.
In one case, a tenant said their parking permit was blocked with snow and the car was towed. In another, the car was parked crooked in the space (but still between the lines), and got towed.
In May, union members discovered a sign above the door to the office when they tried to speak to management.
“The management office does not get involved in towing,” the sign read. “… If you approach management staff you may be fined up to $75, be denied a permit, or have your permit revoked.”
Paul Boudreau, a union leader and longtime tenant, said his car was among those towed and sold. He’s lived at the complex about six years and said he’s had three landlords. Similar to the situation at Wedgewood, his current landlord bought the property at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, and tenants have little to no idea whom to hold accountable.
MyHoopty started towing cars during the pandemic. They towed Boudreau’s car and took possession — he doesn’t know if it was sold or scrapped — after he was injured slipping in the icy parking lot. It wasn’t registered, he said, but he’d talked to management about how the DMV office was closed, so he couldn’t fix it immediately.
His kids can’t come visit because they’re afraid to park. MyHoopty will only accept payments for cars in cash, with exact change, Boudreau said. That makes it harder to get vehicles back once they’re gone.
“Basically they’re running our lives now,” he said.
The towing has escalated, and tenants complained in an open letter to the property owner that it was being used as a retaliatory measure.
“Tenants who have previously been on the fence about joining our struggle have signed on promptly in the face of your inhumane tactics,” the May 31 letter says.
A MyHoopty representative who would only identify himself as "Jason" said there were more than 50 abandoned vehicles at Seramonte Estates prior to the company being hired.
The property manager imposed parking regulations to improve “the quality of life and enjoyment of the premises for all residents.” Any vehicles found out of compliance are subject to removal.
The representative said that while he understands having a vehicle towed isn’t convenient, MyHoopty’s payment policies are in accordance with the law and mirror towing industry practices across the state.
But towing isn’t the only issue. Tenants mentioned a broken dishwasher that took five months to get repaired, and photos show broken tiles, cracks in the ceiling, a broken window and stairs and sidewalks with grass growing through cracks.
There are 57 tenants at the apartments who receive housing authority vouchers, which means the Hamden Housing Authority agency conducts additional inspections. The Hamden agency conducted 237 inspections from Jan. 1, 2020, to June 30, 2022, and 124 of those failed, according to data from the housing authority.
Earlier this summer, the tenants sent management a letter making five demands: Get rid of the MyHoopty towing, end unpredictable rent increases that occur because of month-to-month lease terms, stop ignoring or stalling lease renewals, perform repairs and maintenance in a reasonable time frame and give tenants a say in who has access to their apartments and when and how they can enter.
The union hasn’t heard back from management.
The union recently celebrated a victory when Hamden’s Legislative Council approved a resolution in support of tenant protections in response to the Seramonte Tenants Union formation.
The resolution says the council will work with the Hamden Fair Rent Commission to “realize a 21st Century standard of living for tenants in Hamden,” discuss a contract expansion with the Quinnipiack Valley Health Department to broaden housing-related inspections, improve local controls over private parking and predatory parking practices, and encourage all Hamden agencies to “use the full extent of their statutory and administrative powers to enforce existing laws.”
Those include collective complaints to the Hamden Fair Rent Commission from tenants unions, the resolution says.
“We basically are just asking to be treated like human beings, like residents of the property,” said Rachel Massaro, one of the Seramonte residents and a union member. “That's all we want.”
Editor’s Note: This story was produced through a partnership with the Connecticut Mirror and Connecticut Public Radio. Reporters reviewed documents from local health departments, city code inspections, police reports and emails between tenants and landlords. They also conducted hours of interviews with tenants, reviewed photos and videos and visited apartments in person to confirm the conditions described.