Jury Out On Fair Rent
by marcia chambers | Jul 29, 2012 5:00 pm
Several days after a recent Representative Town Meeting (RTM) public hearing on creating a fair rent commission, RTM member Adam Hansen, who chaired the committee, says he is evaluating whether the idea “fits or does not fit for Branford.”
In an interview he told the Eagle he plans to gather additional facts, evaluate what the many speakers said during a recent three-hour hearing at Canoe Brook Senior Center and then explore with the RTM whether a fair rent commission is right for Branford. The Board of Selectmen had asked the RTM to look into the issue. There are 22 rent commissions throughout the state.
First, he said,the R& O committee (pictured with guest) needs to know just how many rentals there are in town, specifically apartments, condos, houses and trailer parks, the place where the Fair Rent Commission idea got started. It is believed there are thousands of rentals in Branford now, perhaps more so than in the past because people are renting more than they are buying houses.
Hansen invited three guests, members or directors of their town or city’s fair rent commission, to explain how their commissions work, what they can and cannot do. Jeffrey Kriete, (left) who sits on the fair rent commission in Westbrook, told the audience that the towns of Westbrook and Clinton adopted fair rent commissions because tenants at their trailer parks were experiencing serious problems with the precisely the same landlord who owns the Highland Bluff trailer park in Branford. Omar Francis, (right), who sits on the Clinton fair rent commission, said his commission started three years ago. And Otis Johnson (middle), who is the executive director of the New Haven Fair Rent Commission, said he has overseen his commission for 16 years. All three are pictured above.
TRAILER PARK PROBLEM ON THE SHORELINE
“We have a long-term problem on the shoreline with regard to trailer parks. I am well aware of the situation in the three towns. I spoke with Mr. DaRos three years ago,” Kriete said of his conversation with Unk DaRos, Branford’s first selectman. DaRos visited Highland Bluff in 2009 and spoke to management about the tenants’ concerns. But the problems apparently continue to persist, and neither the tenants nor the company appear to have found common ground to resolve issues, including what the tenants say are major increases in rent.
Over the course of what turned out to be contentious hearing, Hansen and some 50 people in the room heard strong responses against the idea from landlords, Republican RTM members and their supporters.
However, the trailer park tenants from Highland Bluff Trailer Park on North Ivy Street argued that their rents have soared while their services have declined and their efforts to get relief from management have failed over the years. The management company overseeing the park disagreed, but conceded it was not “perfect.”
The majority of residents own their own trailers, but they rent the property on which their homes sit. They also pay property taxes to the town.
Some years ago the tenants obtained some relief when the consumer affairs department of the state Attorney General’s office stepped in. Since then, they said, they have had virtually no relief.
Besides trailer parks, and there are roughly a dozen trailer parks in Branford, thousands of rental apartments, rental condos and rental homes would be affected by the creation of a new fair rent commission. Typically these commissions are designed to help tenants, but landlords at the hearing said their needs had to be considered as well. The state statute covers all rentals, not just trailer parks.
The tenants, many of whom have lived at North Ivy for decades, say all was well until a prior owner sold the park to R.H. Properties, Inc., of Farmington Hills, Michigan, one of the largest mobile home owners in the nation. The landlord also owns Green Acres trailer park in Westbook and Cedar Grove and Evergreen Springs in Clinton.
RHP Properties is named after Ross H. Partrich who owns several real estate companies, including the management arm, Newberry Associates, which oversees the trailer parks in Branford, Clinton and Westbook.
Newberry’s regional manager, Joseph Carbone, attended the meeting and took issue with the problems the tenants say they are having at their park. He did concede things were not “perfect”, and he did say that if there were differences between rent fees Newberry’s trailer parks and other trailer parks, “that is our prerogative.”
Tenants from Highland Bluff, previously called Highland Mobile Home Park and located at 151 North Ivy St., have spoken at a number of public meetings over the years. They say their trailer park has deteriorated while their rents have soared to the $500 a month range ever since RHP Properties purchased the parks in 2004. This rent is far higher than rents charged at the 11 other trailer parks in Branford. Many residents in the park are on fixed incomes.
Their recurring complaints center on trash pick-up, timely snow removal and maintenance of the common area, for which they pay. At one point their electricity was not up to code. Tree maintenance is erratic and they all live within and around tall trees. They have had gas problems, septic tank issues and general clean-up issues.
Carbone told the group that he has nothing to hide; if he had, he wouldn’t have attended the meeting.
“We have no violations outstanding. We have a complaint process. We have a competent management always willing to help… I can’t say everything is perfect. No, absolutely not. But you can improve it. If the health dept felt so that would be one thing, but they have not been there in last year or so. I am not sure what the health issue is. We have a complaint process.”
Steep rent hikes remain a primary issue and the tenants at the trailer park say they need a commission. Typical rents are in the high $300s to the low $400s. Rents from Newberry are in the $525 range.
“We are paying $500 for a postage stamp. We are talking about the rent increase,” said Rich Levchuk (pictured at top), who lives with his family at Highland Bluff.
But the problem is that fair rent commissions apply to all rentals, not just trailer park communities. And several in the audience, especially those involved in real estate or those who are landlords, questioned setting up yet another layer of accountability.
One of the issues is whether landlord tenant problems at one trailer park should prompt the creation of a fair rent commission whose authority would extend to all other rentals in town. Kriete, Francis and Johnson said commissions were essential for those who need legal protection, mediation efforts and some way to achieve communication between adversaries.
Johnson, who has served as executive director of the New Haven Fair Rent Commission for 16 years, said that both parties have rights. “Communication is very important. You would be surprised how poor it is.There are rights and responsibilities for landlords and for the tenant by state statute.
“Before we start our hearing, I do an informal hearing or mediation. Our commission was established in 1970. With communication and cooperation it is possible to fix the problem. Over the years of working with them we have achieved a better relationship with landlords. The rent is paid on time; the taxes get in on time. The landlord can buy another building, the adding to the grand list.”
After he spoke Richard Greenalch, Jr., a lawyer and a member of the R& O committee, asked Johnson for a copy of his regulations.
Republican RTM member Cynthia Nargi, a real estate broker in Madison, was dead set against any rent commission. She said this was a state issue, because the statute was so broad. Essentially she said rent commissions “would create a whole new level of review” a review she felt was unnecessary.
Dennis Flanagan, Republican clerk of the RTM, agreed with her, saying the key issue was establishing communication between the trailer park tenants and the management company “and not generating another board or commission.” He suggested various health or other town departments to handle some of the issues. He suggested speaking with their RTM member, because, the representative can help. He also suggested speaking with Carbone. “He is willing to listen,” he claimed. The tenants say otherwise.
At one point Republican Minority Leader Frank Twohill, (pictured) insisting he was going “to get to the bottom of this,” laced into Kriete. A testy exchange followed over the problems at each trailer park. Twohill, who is an attorney, hammered away. Kriete shot back: “You are trying to denigrate the process.” Twohill shot back: “Don’t put words in my mouth.” Then Twohill demanded to know just how many cases his commission had settled with Carbone. Kriete said one, but earlier he had said that 33 cases were still pending.
According to a 2011 article last year in the New Haven Register, roughly half the tenants at Green Acres had filed complaints with their fair rent commission over a rent hike they are protesting. These 33 cases are not over.
Kriete (left) got angry at Twohill’s attitude and demeanor and declared: “Stop acting like a lawyer.” At that point Hansen, the chair, intervened, reminding everyone about the need to be civil.
One opponent, Bernie Diana (pictured), a Woodbridge realtor and landlord, said he objected to the name “fair rent commission.” He said it leaned toward the tenant, not the landlord. “Look at what you are calling yourself. I really believe you have to change that,” he said.
Hansen and the R&O Committee concluded they had more work to do before they could arrive at a decision.
Kriete had said that there were two crucial people the town needed to have before moving forward with a rent commission. “We needed to have health and building inspectors. We will look into that,” Hansen said. Without them, there is no way a rent commission can function, he said. “Don’t even bother,” he said at the meeting.
Toward the end of the meeting Hansen said: “We will study what fits and what doesn’t fit for Branford. Perhaps we need a mediation process that doesn’t include a rent commission,” he said toward the end of the evening. One thought that came through loud and clear was this might be an isolated problem involving one trailer park. .
DaRos says the full RTM will eventually make recommendations. But in an interview he said his view is that a mediation panel of sorts is a better idea than a commission because a commission would be far too costly. “This has to apply to all apartments in Branford and we have thousands,” he said.
“I would rather see it as a mediation panel for tenants and landlords as opposed to a full blown commission because then they are going to have to have their own attorney, and it could be a very expensive thing. If a mediation type thing, bring in community mediators and they seem to be very successful when they do this.”
Post a Comment
Firstly, that was a very well reported piece, on an issue with many components. Secondly, and this is written by a landlord, kudos go to Mr. Hansen and otheres who recognized that the trailer problems are somewhat unique….In the cases of apartments and condos, living quarters and land are leased. And if tenants do not agree with the landlord they are free to move elsewhere, with many choices within town. Not so for most trailer dwellers. Many if not most own their trailers. Some are cemented to the ground. Moving is not a viable option for them. Their situation is unique and needs to be addressed by the State. Our local state representatives are a great place to start. State statute Sec. 7-148b can be modified or expanded to address instances where the tenant is “locked in”. Such legislation could have the support of many landlords sympathetic to the peculiar situation of many trailer dwellers.
I cannot believe that no one asked any of the out-of-town rent commission members how the commission has helped or hindered tenants, landlords, or their town in general. I understand that people may have philosophical reasons as to why they do not want more regulations put upon them, however, I fail to see how a decision can be made without all the facts. As for the Woodbridge realtor who objected to the name “fair rent commission”-is this person also against consumer protections too?!