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New Haven is the first city in Connecticut to recognize tenant unions under local law

A tenant union at Quinnipiac Gardens in New Haven planted the seed last year for a proposal by New Haven mayor Justin Elicker to recognize tenant unions. New Haven’s Board of Alders voted unanimously to recognize tenant unions on Tuesday evening – making it the first municipality in the state to support unions under local law.
Tyler Russell
File/Connecticut Public
A tenant union at Quinnipiac Gardens in New Haven planted the seed last year for a proposal by New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker to recognize these unions. New Haven’s Board of Alders voted unanimously Tuesday evening to recognize tenant unions — making it the first municipality in the state to support tenant unions under local law.

At least five tenant unions have formed in Connecticut in the past few years in hopes of demanding change. And now unions in New Haven are one step closer to doing just that, thanks to local government support.

New Haven’s Board of Alders voted unanimously on Tuesday evening to recognize tenant unions – making the city the first municipality in the state to support unions under local law.

“I am really happy and excited for what this means for tenants in New Haven and tenants across the state of Connecticut who are going to see what’s possible,” said Luka Melonakos-Harrison, an organizer with Connecticut Tenants Union, an organization that has been critical to the resurgence of unions in the state.

The vote comes as New Haven identifies unions as a potential defense against retaliatory evictions at a time when the number of filings has remained well above pre-pandemic numbers since March. While it’s unknown how many are considered retaliatory, the state saw an uptick of no-fault evictions during the pandemic.

What does the vote mean? 

The new ordinance officially defines a tenant union in New Haven as an organization of tenants living in a complex of 10 or more units that was created with the support of the majority of tenants. Tenants living in an owner-occupied complex will not be recognized, according to the ordinance. While state law mentions tenant unions, there is no definition in state or local law.

Beyond the definition, unions in New Haven will have a new role with the city’s Fair Rent Commission. The unions will be able to work alongside the commission on investigations of unfair rent increases, poor housing conditions and more. While members of tenant unions will still have to file individual complaints, they will be able to testify on one another’s behalf during investigations and support the process.

“So the tenants union amendment ordinance will help regulate and recognize tenants unions, and it’s one of the first in the state of Connecticut. So we’re very excited about it,” said Wildaliz Bermudez, executive director of New Haven’s Fair Rent Commission. “And while the state statute has information and outlines tenants unions, it doesn't exactly explain how a fair rent commission will be accepting complaints from the tenants unions members.”

The ordinance states that the commission will rely on the participation of tenant unions when reaching a decision and may also refer those findings on the specific complex to other city departments or commissions.

The commission evaluates 13 factors when investigating unfair rent rates – nine are used statewide. The additional factors include damages resulting from reasons other than ordinary wear and tear and the amount and frequency of increases to rental charges.

The path toward progress

The ordinance was proposed this summer by Mayor Justin Elicker as the city saw an increase of tenant unions asking for support.

“Things only get done if you get involved, get your voice heard,” said Kay Pittman, a member of a tenant union at Quinnipiac Gardens in New Haven.

The union planted the seed for the ordinance last year when it presented the city with its demands.

“There was no ramp or sort of avenue for tenants to engage collectively with any part of the city, even though everybody in the complex was dealing with the same issues and the same pattern of negligence and maltreatment from the landlord,” Melonakos-Harrison said.

He said the law is hopefully just a first step toward what's to come as tenants fight to level the playing field.

Next, the city’s Fair Rent Commission will decide when unions can start to participate in mediation efforts with landlords.

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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