City Slaps Lien On 66 Norton

New Haven Building Department photoThe city’s anti-blight agency has placed an open-ended lien on a century-old, 41-unit apartment complex to cover relocation expenses for the dozens of tenants displaced from the Edgewood building that was condemned in February.

On Sept. 19, Serena Neal-Sanjurjo, the executive director of the city’s anti-blight Livable City Initiative (LCI), signed an open-ended lien on 66 Norton St. Without stating a specific dollar amount, the lien covers past expenses and future expenses that the city expects to pay to reimburse tenants for relocation costs incurred in the wake of the complex’s condemnation seven months ago by the city’s Building Department.

“The cost incurred by this agency shall be forthcoming and shall remain a lien on the property,” the lien document reads. “Such expenditures are required as a result of expenses incurred and to be incurred in connection with the relocation of tenants from the Property known as 66 Norton Street.”

“At the present time,” the lien continues, “said expenses and/or benefits are to be incurred by tenants displaced as a result of the violation of Section 117 of the Connecticut Building Code,” which refers to structures that the city building official deems in imminent danger of failure or collapse.

The city’s Building Department condemned the towering, low-income apartment complex earlier this year after a Feb. 22 routine city inspection and subsequent structural analysis revealed that the building was no longer safe to inhabit  because of sagging floors, ceiling leaks, and rotting wood.

Eighty tenants living in 33 apartment units at the complex had just 45 minutes to pack their essential belongs and vacate the building. In the weeks that followed, Mendy Katz, the New Haven-based landlord who manages the building on behalf of its owner, Brooklyn-based realtor Ernest Schemitsch, worked with LCI and New Haven Legal Aid to place tenants in motels off of Rt. 15 as the displaced families sought more permanent replacement housing.

City Building Official Jim Turcio said that a contractor hired by the landlord is currently gutting the 52 bathrooms in the still-vacant 66 Norton complex. Once that work is complete, he said, the Building Department will return to inspect the property and determine if the building can be made safe to live in again.

“We’re going to take a look once everything is gutted,” he said. Hopefully, he said, that will be sometime next month.

According to land records for 66 Norton, the Westbrook-based contractor Preferred Enterprises, LLC pulled a building permit on June 13 for $104,800 worth of selective interior demolition work in the existing five-story building.

Missing Wax Toilet Rings And Rusted Bathtub Drains

Thomas Breen photoThe Building Department’s files on the property also include a March 28 report from the Enfield-based Rinaldi Engineering that offers further insight into 66 Norton’s structural decay.

“It is apparent that the bulk of the structural deficiencies are a result of long-term plumbing leaks in the piping and fixtures,” Rinaldi Engineering’s Charles Rinaldi wrote in March report. “Lack of, or deterioration of, wax rings at the toilets may also be contributing to the problem. Since the bathrooms align vertically, leakage in one upper bathroom can cause problems in lower bathrooms.”

Rinaldi began his report by noting that his March 24 inspection of 66 Norton was limited to only two hours because of directions from the city Fire Department.

“This is an inadequate amount of time to inspect a 40-unit apartment building,” he wrote. “A more thorough inspection might reveal additional structural inadequacies.”

Nevertheless, Rinaldi was able to identify a series of structural problems with the building through his examination of 66 Norton’s basement and apartments 46, 52, and 53.

He wrote that observation from the basement of the first-floor framing revealed that a header adjacent to a plumbing stack is deficient, that another header adjacent to another plumbing stack is missing and therefore leaving the end of the joist with no support, and that a temporary 4 x 4 plank of wood had been installed to add support to the floor. “But it is too small for its length,” he wrote, “and is bowing severely.”

An inspection of apartment 46, he wrote, revealed a three-inch settlement of the floor at the bathroom.

“This amount of settlement is not normal,” he wrote, “and is indicative of structural failure of the floor in this area.” He wrote that an inspection of the bathtub also showed severe rusting around the drain, which causes leaks.

Rinaldi also found “severe settlement of the floor” and rusting around the bathtub drain in the bathroom of apartment 53, as well as deformation of the bathroom door frame. And an inspection of apartment 52 revealed “bathroom door deformation and settlement of the hallway floor.”

Although Rinaldi did not find any risk of the building’s catastrophic structural failure based on the areas he inspected, he did recommend that portions of the basement ceiling be removed to allow for inspection of the support beams and to have every apartment inspected by a structural engineer to look for additional structural deficiencies.

“All leaking pipes,” he wrote, “and galvanized steel pipes should be replaced to avoid a continuing problem.”

Neither Mendy Katz nor former 66 Norton property manager Stacey O’Connell responded to multiple requests for comment on the current state of the property.

Disputed Housing Relocation Payments

Markeshia Ricks photoWhile LCI’s Sept. 19 lien does not specify exactly how much the city has spent on 66 Norton relocation costs to date, New Haven Legal Assistance Association Litigation Director Shelley White said that she is currently fighting on behalf of seven former tenants for state-promised, city-managed funds to help cover higher rent and utility payments at their new homes.

City officials in LCI, the corporation counsel’s office, and the mayor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the new lien, about relocation-related expenditures to date, and about expected relocation-related expenditures to come for former 66 Norton tenants. A top official at LCI did confirm that all former 66 Norton tenants are in new homes and that none are still in temporary emergency housing in area motels.

White said that she is currently filing appeals for seven 66 Norton clients who have put in requests for “replacement housing payments.”

According to the state Department of Housing (DOH) Uniform Relocation Assistance Grant, dislocated tenants who have to pay more in rent and utilities at their new homes than at their previous homes are eligible to receive up to $4,000 “to enable such displaced person to lease or rent for a period not to exceed four years, a decent, safe, and sanitary dwelling of standards adequate to accommodate such person in areas not generally less desirable with regard to public utilities and public and commercial facilities, and reasonably accessible to such displaced person’s place of employment.”

White said that the state funds are managed at the city level by LCI and that her seven remaining clients and the city are not arguing over the eligibility of any of the former tenants to receive said payments. She said that the city has recognized that all of her clients did indeed live at 66 Norton, that they are all paying more in rent and utilities than they were at the now-condemned property, and that they all qualify for the state assistance.

The dispute, White said, is over how much money each of her clients should get.

“Nobody’s gotten a penny so far,” she said about the seven former tenants she represents.

“It has been just a time-consuming, tedious process that we’ve been going through to get the city to make decisions on this.”

She said she started filing requests and appeals for these clients back in May. Over the past five months, she said, her clients have had to rely on subsidies from their old landlord and have had to pay out of pocket to cover increased housing expenses at their new homes.

She said that one of her clients will likely have to pay $13,200 more at her new home over the next four years than what she would have had to pay at her old apartment at 66 Norton.

Christopher Peak photoThe city, she said, is looking to pay these relocated tenants less than the $4,000 maximum set by state statute because the city is subtracting from its relocation calculations money that has already been paid by the 66 Norton landlord to her clients’ new landlords to defray some of the increased costs of living. So, if the old landlord paid the new landlord $1,800 to cover first month’s rent at a new apartment, then the city is looking to subtract that landlord-to-landlord payment from what the city plans to pay out to tenants in housing relocation payments.

White said that these payments from landlord-to-landlord are not covered by the state statute, and are not valid reasons for reducing housing relocation payment assistance.

“These tenants went through hell and back,” she said. She said the payments made from landlord-to-landlord should not count against tenants who are paying significantly more at their new homes than at their old, and who had no idea that the two landlords had come to a special agreement.

White said that she also represented five other former 66 Norton tenants who wound up moving to other properties managed by Katz. She said that Katz did not raise rents for those five tenants, and therefore the tenants do not qualify for the housing relocation payments.

“The only tenants who have been considered for replacement housing payments are my clients,” she said. “The city has done nothing to reach out to the people who moved and for whatever reason did not put in a request. They didn’t reach out to them when they were in hotels, to advise them of their right to the benefit.”

She said that beyond the seven former 66 Norton clients she is currently representing and the five others whom she already has represented, she has not been able to make contact with the other thirty-odd families who had to leave 66 Norton last February. 

“The City Didn’t Help Us With Nothing”

Markeshia Ricks photoOne former 66 Norton tenant whom White is currently representing is Shelly Sutherland, a nurse’s assistant who had lived at 66 Norton with her husband and three children for nearly five years before having to pack her essentials and leave her home when the building was condemned in February.

Speaking with the Independent by phone on Tuesday, Sutherland said that she and her family lived in a motel on the western side of town for two months before finding new permanent housing in April. She said that she used to pay $875 for a two-bedroom at 66 Norton, where heat and hot water were included in each month’s rent. At her new home on Shelton Avenue, she pays $1,150 each month for a three-bedroom apartment, but her rent does not include any utilities.

“It was very stressful, very difficult,” she said about living in a motel room for two months, trying to find a new apartment, taking time off from work, and taking care of her three children, ages two, eight, and 10. “The city didn’t help us with nothing,” she said.

At the motel, she said, she and her family had no refrigerator and no stove and wound up eating fast food for three meals a day. She said her oldest son put on weight, she had to take a week off of work, and she and her husband fought as they had never done before.

She said the city made no efforts to help them find a new apartment.

“We had to figure everything else out ourselves,” she said.

Sutherland said her old landlord has paid her first month’s rent and security deposit at her new apartment, which is owned by a different landlord and which she described as cleaner and nicer than her 66 Norton home, and as much closer to her middle son’s school, Lincoln Bassett.

Nevertheless, she said, she feels burned by the whole process of her mandatory relocation from 66 Norton. She said she lost $500 on a security deposit that wasn’t returned by a landlord whose apartment she decided not to rent, and that her television and printer and son’s video game console were stolen from their old room at 66 Norton while the family was living at the motel. Their appliances remained in the condemned building.

She said that she will be going back to court later this month to advocate with her lawyer Shelley White for as much as she can get out of the $4,000-maximum housing relocation payments.

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posted by: Noteworthy on October 2, 2018  2:04pm

If LCI and the building department were doing their jobs - this kind of systemic failure would be caught a lot sooner than after this level of damage and deterioration has occurred. I thought that’s what these fees and inspections were levied - so every apartment building in the city would be inspected every two years. This is years of rot.

posted by: robn on October 2, 2018  2:07pm

New jack city.

posted by: Pinkie on October 2, 2018  7:14pm

The out of state landlord should’ve given them food coupons or whatever so they could’ve ate better food since some didn’t have a stove or fridge.  These old buildings house section8 tenants…I thought they inspected yearly to pass inspection.  Someone not doing their job.  Why didn’t the tenants march to city Hall w complaints…there’s no need to live like a third world country in the USA if you’re poor.

posted by: EPDP on October 2, 2018  7:58pm

This is old news.  Buildings eventually get old and deteriorate.  The landlord is rehabbing the place.  Big deal. The NHI has been giving this story way too much attention.  A lien placed by LCI on the property is routine.  Is LCI going to foreclose if the lien is higher than the value of the property?  I don’t think so. The City is not in the rental business.  LCI and the landlord will eventually negotiate some kind of agreement.  The NHI focuses too much on negativity.  Why doesn’t the NHI spend more time writing positive articles, like about some of the buildings that are getting rehabbed in Goatville.
-Larry Noodles.

posted by: Patricia Kane on October 2, 2018  9:32pm

Are there any criminal sanctions for taking people’s rent money and failing to provide housing to Code?

posted by: Bill Saunders on October 2, 2018  10:49pm

I have seen that picture of the beam with the hole before—it does not look like that ‘hole’ was caused by rot and decay.
What it does look like is that somebody used an old I-Beam to shore up an existing problem in the basement.

I sincerely doubt that that beam is original to the building—it came much later….

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on October 3, 2018  10:13am

EPDP, my house in SoHu was built in 1844; I know that buildings get old and deteriorate. But the problems here reflect long-term neglect. It is newsworthy when 80 people have to move because of such neglect.

posted by: EPDP on October 3, 2018  11:02am

Kevin McCarthy-  The owner of this property purchased it in 2015 for $2.5 million.  According to the New Haven land records he borrowed $1.8 million to finance the deal from a reputable commercial bank.  Having done hundreds of commercial closings over the years as an attorney I can tell you that the bank is not going to lend out almost two million dollars without conducting a thorough inspection and appraisal.  You can’t put all the blame on the property owner, who has only owned this property for a couple of years.  The NHI is appealing to emotions with these articles and is not providing the public with the entire story.  Click bait

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on October 3, 2018  9:05pm

EPDP, I don’t believe you are disputing that the building has the structural problems described in the article. Here are the possible explanations I can think of; perhaps you can identify others.

Neither the bank nor the buyer conducted an inspection (I agree that this is unlikely).
The inspection(s) did not find some or all of the “long-term plumbing leaks in the piping and fixtures” cited by Rinaldi Engineering as the primary cause of the problems.
The new owner was informed, but failed to repair the leaks in a timely fashion.
The new owner was misinformed as to the extent of the leaks, and did not have actual or constructive knowledge of the resulting structural problems.

I’m not trying to fix liability in this case. I just got off a jury in a civil case and understand how complicated that process can be. Rather, I am (1) echoing the engineering report in saying that the structural problems were the result of on-going lack of maintenance and repair and (2) the story is newsworthy.

You fault the NHI for “not providing the public with the entire story”. Do you have additional facts that can enlighten us? (Obviously, I’m not suggesting that you violate attorney-client privilege, if that applies.)

posted by: Sabrina-in-NewHaven on October 4, 2018  12:34am

@EPDP while buildings to get old they do not eventually deteriorate. That is a ridiculous tenet to believe. It is so typical that people who have never managed a building like this or lived in a well-maintained building of this age want to chime in. I have lived in pre-war buildings. When buildings rot like this, it not from age but from a cheap, lazy landlord who refuses to maintain the roof or allay faulty plumbing. Smart landlords create capital projects funded with trusts they’ve created or with subsidies provided by the state to replace rooves as necessary and to upgrade plumbing, electrical, etc.

You can walk down West End Avenue in Manhattan and find taller, older buildings. None of them are deteriorating because the landlords respect the rich people who are paying 10x what anyone in New Haven can afford for rent or are owner managed with multi-year plans for maintenance and upgrades. Your willful ignorance is actually downright aggravating.

Saggy floors and mold, etc are from decades of leaks and non-maintenance. IF anyone digs deep enough they will find the first inspector or inspectors who ignored the signs years ago.  The landlord sucks but the inspectors who pretended not to notice this are liars and should be held accountable.