The door had a new lock. Tenants got new keys. A stranger got into the building anyway—until he was caught on the stairs on his way to a suspected drug-dealing apartment.
That scene took place Thursday inside an elderly complex managed by a company run by Matthew Harp, the son of Democratic mayoral candidate Toni Harp.
It reflected his efforts to keep on top of the challenges of managing properties rented to subsidized tenants in low-income neighborhoods—and the continued challenges landlords face even after responding to problems.
The uninvited guest, a young man with a bicycle, was passing through the entrance of Robeson Elderly Apartments at Rosette and Dewitt streets in the Hill neighborhood.
The building is run by Matthew Harp’s Renaissance Management. Low-income seniors subsidized by the federal government’s Section 8 program live there. Conditions at the complex led a competing candidate, Kermit Carolina, at a mayoral debate to accuse the Harp family business of being a “slumlord.”
After this article revealed that non-tenants have used the building to use drugs and have sex and urinate in a mold-infected basement, Harp’s company—Renaissance Management—swung into action. It ripped out a basement wall to wrap sweating pipes that had caused the mold, then put up new sheetrock. It called the Otis company to fix the elevator so only staffers can get to the basement there with a special key. It replaced a glass frame to the building’s inside front-door entrance with sheetrock so intruders can’t break in. It put a new lock on the inside front-entrance door and handed out new keys to tenants to try to stop non-tenants from entering.
As Harp and his crew showed those changes to a reporter Thursday, several tenants walked through the front entrance.
Walking behind them was a young man with a bicycle. None of the Renaissance Management staffers present—Harp; maintenance supervisor Gerard Davenport, who has held the job for 15 years; and recently retired longtime senior property manager Arlene Davis—recognized the young man.
The young man stashed his bike by the stairway then started walking toward the second floor. Davenport asked where he was headed.
The young man named a second-floor apartment where drug-dealing has allegedly been occurring. According to Harp, the legal tenant is a woman who has been hospitalized, and a young family member has set up a drug-dealing business there in her absence. He said Renaissance has been alerting the police to the problem and has been seeking to evict the occupants.
Davenport told the young man on the stairs that nobody is supposed to be staying in the apartment. (Click on the video at the top of the story to watch part of the exchange.)
“The lady’s in the hospital. So nobody’s there. No one should be there,” Davenport said.
“I apologize,” the young man replied. He walked back down, grabbed his bike, and left.
The episode demonstrated two frustrations for Harp, who said he has been working hard to improve conditions at the properties he has taken over since his father (Toni Harp’s husband), Wendell Harp, died in 2011. As head of Renaissance Management, Matthew Harp is responsible for what he estimated as over 200 apartments in town. He said that around 95 percent of them are in “project-based” Section 8 complexes. That means that they are rented to people with low incomes who receive federal Section 8 housing subsidies—subsidies that are tied to the physical building, as opposed to portable vouchers tenants can take with them to different locations.
One of Harp’s frustrations is political. He called it unfair that the business’s name gets dragged through the mud in the context of a mayoral race. Toni Harp has repeatedly argued that she has had no involvement in her late husband’s and now her son’s real estate business, and that it’s unfair to blame her for conditions at the business’s properties.
Mayoral candidates Carolina and Henry Fernandez argue that she bears responsibility as a state senator and potential mayor for conditions at properties run by her family’s business. She has personally benefited from the income those properties produce and has had a conflict of interest as a state senator as the business has amassed the state’s largest unpaid-taxes bill after a lost legal challenge, the candidates contend.
“We had to shed some public light on these conditions for anything to change” at Robeson, Carolina said in an interview Friday. “Senator Harp should really be ashamed of herself for not holding her family more accountable. She claims to care about elderly residents, but she allowed this to happen under own nose. How can you protect the elderly, and you’re not willing to hold people in your household accountable first? Charity starts at home, and so does accountability.”
Asked about the issue again in an interview, Toni Harp (pictured) said that if elected mayor she would see no potential conflict of interest in the city’s dealings with Renaissance Management’s properties. She vowed she would ensure that Renaissance Management receives the same scrutiny as other landlords. “One standard for everybody,” she said. “A high standard for everyone—including my son. If there are complaints filed, they will be looked into for whoever the landlord is, whether it’s Mandy [Management] or Pike or Renaissance.” She also vowed to have city government’s anti-blight agency, Livable City Initiative (LCI), raise its standards in enforcing code violations.
Matthew Harp’s second frustration: That critics are tarnishing the reputation of a management company that he said keeps up properties well, earns good scores on inspections, and in no way operates like slumlords. Click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for stories about some other New Haven landlords who have been involved in far greater controversies in New Haven’s low-income neighborhoods. Those antics—some outright criminal or fatal—have not come up for discussion in this year’s mayoral campaign.
Harp assumed management of the company’s properties upon his father’s death and then partial ownership; he said he formed new partnerships with outside investors to buy the properties. “I didn’t ‘inherit’ them,” he said.
He did that partly to reduce the interest costs on the buildings, he said. He said his father’s company built many of the properties three decades ago and often got financing from lenders like the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority (CHFA) at steep interest rates, leaving less money than is ideal to invest in the properties.
“I think what he did was fantastic” given the resources at hand, Harp said of his father. His late father did over the years have repeated run-ins, legal and otherwise, with government inspectors and lenders over lead paint and other complaints, and with legal-aid lawyers over tenant disputes. Over the past seven years, unlike some other major landlords of low-income properties in town, Renaissance has done well on its LCI inspections. A Freedom of Information request to review files revealed that only four properties have received official complaints to LCI; according to the files, the complaints were relatively minor, and Renaissance promptly fixed them. It has passed all its inspections for license renewals.
“Since Matthew has taken ownership [a year and a half ago], they’ve been more proactive,” observed LCI Executive Director Erik Johnson. “We do not get a lot of calls on Renaissance properties. I know they have tried to make necessary improvements. They still have some stuff they need to address.”
Harp said that he has found an opportunity to improve conditions at all the properties. Besides finding lower-cost financing, he has reduced the maintenance staff while making it more efficient, he said. He said that has improved performance—and freed up money to invest in the properties. Now, every time a tenant leaves an apartment, Renaissance is doing a dramatic overhaul, Harp said: New floors, Frigidaires and self-cleaning Tappan ovens, toilets and sinks, countertops, often new walls.
He offered a before-and-after tour of some of those apartments. He said modern, improved—and lower-cost—materials have enabled Renaissance to do more with less. In some cases, more expensive investments will produce longer-term results, he said. An example: For between $4 and $5 per square foot, Renaissance is putting in “DuraCeramic,” ceramic tile that doesn’t break when you drop something on it. Regular ceramic tile is cheaper (around 95 cents per square foot) and vinyl composite even cheaper (67 cents), but they don’t last as long, he said.
Often, he said, Renaissance does all it can only to deal with tenants who trash apartments and just recklessly cause problems. He toured an apartment at the 63-unit Presidential Gardens complex in Newhallville, where Renaissance had pleaded with a tenant to stop hoarding huge piles of stuff, Harp said. The woman refused. She unintentionally caused a fire recently that destroyed the apartment (pictured), he said. (She fortunately escaped unhurt.) As a result, that apartment is undergoing an even more extensive rehab than most units.
The day before the management visit, police (pictured) converged on the complex to respond to a mid-afternoon report of young men smoking marijuana on the premises. Presidential Gardens has an attractive landscaped inner courtyard. Davis said outsiders often converge on such areas and cause problems; management keeps no-loitering complaints on file with the cops so they can remove unwanted visitors.
Other tenants have stayed in the developments for decades. Some of them greeted Davis, the longtime senior property manager (pictured with Harp and Davenport, with hugs or warm hellos during the visit to several properties Thursday.
Harp showed this apartment belonging to a 27-year tenant of Westwood Village, which is also in Newhallville. It was immaculate and attractively furnished.
“Basic Human Dignity”
Underlying the debate over Renaissance’s properties is the standard by which it should be judged.
Candidate Fernandez argued that conditions at Robeson were unacceptable, even if the landlord has received passing inspections, which Renaissance has on the property, from both city government’s LCI and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. It scored 89 out of 100 on its latest HUD inspection.
Fernandez contrasted conditions at Robeson, which he called unacceptable, with those at Casa Otonal in the Hill, which is also a project-based Section 8 senior complex. It has not had the same kind of problems as Robeson. That proves Renaissance can and should do better, Fernandez said.
Casa Otonal is a generally well-regarded complex, though it ran into management troubles in 2010.)
“The standard has to be basic human dignity,” Fernandez said. “If the director of LCI thinks this is a building that could pass inspection with people urinating and defecating on the floor and selling drugs in the building and no locks on the door and broken windows and mold over, I would suggest there would be very significant changes to whatever rules they believe they’re following with regard to inspections [if Fernandez wins the election]. This is just unacceptable and disgusting. No one should be profiting off of properties that are making people live in these kinds of dangerous and disgusting conditions.”
“We had to shed some public light on these conditions for anything to change” at Robeson, candidate Carolina said. “Senator Harp should really be ashamed of herself for not holding her family more accountable. She claims to care about elderly residents, but she allowed this to happen under own nose. How can you protect the elderly, and you’re not willing to hold people in your household accountable first? Charity starts at home, and so does accountability.”
Matthew Harp called Fernandez’s comparison “a false analogy.” Casa Otonal has 104 apartments to manage in one location. That means it can afford to have a full-time maintenance team and social services on site, he said. Robeson has 22 apartments. It doesn’t produce enough revenue to have full-time on-site management and maintenance, he said.
He noted, as well, that the mold found at Robeson was in the basement, not in people’s apartments. He said Renaissance therefore did not have seniors occupy apartments there. “We’re not having people living in places where we know there’s mold hanging about.”
Harp also argued that while Renaissance extensively screens tenants, it faces obstacles to dealing with those who cause problems once they start living in the properties. He cited the Robeson case. Renaissance is moving to evict the relative allegedly dealing drugs out of the elderly female tenant’s apartment, he said. But that takes a while, and even though the relative isn’t the legal tenant, a relative staying in an apartment with the tenant’s permission has rights protecting him or her against eviction.
Harp added that police know about the drug-dealing and could perhaps seek a restraining order or other legal means to bar the relative from the apartment.
Lt. Joe Witkowski, the neighborhood’s top cop, said he does know about the problems at Robeson. He said Renaissance has kept his cops abreast of problems. But it’s not so simple for police to obtain permission to search an apartment and get rid of problem tenants, he said.
Thanks to a standing trespass complaint from Renaissance, “we go in there pretty frequently. We do make trespass arrests of people who don’t live there. That’s the easiest way to get rid of” loiterers or others causing trouble, Witkowski said.
Asked if Renaissance has been a responsible landlord, Witkowski responded, “They’ve stepped up their game a little bit. Let’s put it that way. I think they’ve made some improvements, which is a good thing. We hope that continues.”
The Independent returned to Robeson on Friday. The occupant of the suspected drug apartment buzzed in a reporter without a question. He came out to greet the reporter on the second-floor landing. Informed the visitor is a reporter, he responded while returning to his apartment, “Nah, I can’t talk to you. See you later. We’re moving!” Then he shut the door.
Legal Aid Obstacles?
Matthew Harp also argued that legal-aid lawyers sometimes present obstacles to more frequent necessary evictions. He said he respects the job they do, and they do it well. But he also spoke of how problem tenants can get legal help for free, while the landlord will sometimes have to spend close to the equivalent of a year’s worth of rent on a private lawyer to press the eviction in court.
He cited the case of a woman living in Presidential Gardens. Five years ago, he said, police raided the apartment. They found guns and drugs for sale in clear sight. They arrested the woman’s grandson. She claimed not to have known about the dealing.
Renaissance sought to evict her. New Haven Legal Assistance represented the woman. They convinced a judge not to allow the eviction. Instead the parties reached an agreement to bar the grandson from the premises.
Harp said the family did not keep the agreement; recently the police made another bust there.
Here’s what legal aid responded when asked about it:
“The facts in the case are hotly contested, which is exactly why the tenant at issue needs representation. New Haven Legal Assistance is proud of its nearly 50-year history of representing low-income persons and families in a variety of courts. This includes housing court, where most tenants lack any representation. Landlords who cannot prove their case for eviction in court should not win their case for eviction in court. We are disappointed that Renaissance Management appears to be blaming New Haven Legal Assistance Association for problems that it is facing in its buildings.”
Quick Response This Week
A tenant at a Renaissance-run apartment building at 674 Howard Ave. in the Hill—who is under eviction proceedings—went to legal aid and the city this week with longstanding complaints.
The tenant, Zecolia Robinson (pictured), said that for years she has had mold in the bathroom, a problem for her young children, who have asthma. She said she had complained about a loose electrical socket (her pre-paid cellphone photo is at left) and about a hallway light that had been out since Hurricane Sandy. Renaissance would never fix it, she said, until her complaints this week to legal aid, the health department, and LCI. Crews arrived and painted over the mold and fixed the socket and the hallway light, she said.
Meanwhile, she said she still has problems with mice in her apartment; two nights ago she caught one headed toward her 9-month-old baby’s crib, she said. She also said she has complained, with no results, about a fire escape that, as a large woman, she can’t fit through; it’s a half-sized window that leads to exterior stairs.
“They know how to contact you when they want your money. When you contact them, they take their time,” Robinson said.
Renaissance has been seeking to evict her for nonpayment of rent. She said she fell behind because of an error with her Section 8 benefits—she hadn’t received for more than a year a credit for the birth of her second child. (She has three.) She said she is now in the process of paying back Renaissance for the past due bill.
Matthew Harp responded that what the woman called mold was a “speck” on the ceiling: “There was no damage. There was no mold issue. We’ve got pictures to justify that.”
He said Renaissance contracts with a pest-control company to spray buildings quarterly and then to respond ASAP to individual complaints of rodent or insect infestation.
Finally comes the question of tenants and unwanted guests: How do you stop someone from trailing tenants inside after you’ve put up a new door and new lock and distributed new keys?
Or how do you stop tenants from leaving a front door open?
That question arose at a Renaissance-run apartment building next door to 674 Howard, at 672. The building has a live-in tenant who watches the building for Renaissance and keeps the police apprised of problems.
The Independent stopped by there this week without Renaissance staffers present.
The front door was open. So was the interior front door.
Tenants answering door knocks said they are content with management for the most part.
Then a young man entered the hallway. He wore a “Vampers” T-shirt and pants partway falling down, revealing most of his underwear.
He said he has “no problems” with the management of the building. He also said he has no idea who the management is. He said he doesn’t live there. He didn’t say what he was doing there. He declined to pose for a photo: “too much police.”
He left the building. A few minutes later he reentered the front hallway. Then a woman in scrubs walked by from the direction of nearby Yale-New Haven Hospital, toward the building’s front door. She was asked if she lives in the building; she said no.
She greeted the young man in the foyer. They closed the front door. The front door opened a few moments later, and she left.
The front door was open again a few days later as the Renaissance team passed by on a tour of properties. Harp said his team tries to convince tenants not to leave interior front doors to the building open. That doesn’t always work, he said. But he’ll keep trying.