House Condemned; Tenants Displaced

Thomas Breen photosThe city condemned a two-family home that two Guilford-based landlords had illegally converted into a five-unit rooming house. Four tenants were displaced.

The landlords’ — and their citywide tenants’ — problems may have just begun.

The city had first cited these landlords for that very same violation at the illegal rooming house nearly a year ago, but the landlords failed to fix the problem.

When a reporter Thursday asked the landlord about the continued violations, he said he plans to sell the property. Then he stopped answering questions.

Then he took a boxcutter from his pocket and flipped the blade.

Mechanic Lean

The city’s anti-blight Livable City Initiative (LCI) and Building Department Wednesday finally condemned the two-family house at 68 Mechanic St., which is owned by the Guilford-based landlords Xie Meiqiang and Ren Xiaoli.

LCI Deputy Director Rafael Ramos said the city condemned the property because the landlords had illegally added three extra units to the house, turning a two-family home into a five-unit boarding house.

“We had to shut it down totally,” Ramos said. Four of the five units had blocked egresses, he said, and unpermitted construction work had been done to the kitchens, the bathrooms, and the plumbing. On Wednesday, he said, United Illuminating came to cut the property’s electricity from the pole.

Two of the tenants have been relocated to hotel rooms at the Village Suites on Long Wharf, Ramos said. The other two have already left the Mechanic Street property and did not answer LCI’s calls, he said. The remaining Mechanic Street unit was unoccupied.

This isn’t the first time that LCI and the Building Department have cited Meiqiang and Xiaoli for supersizing their Mechanic Street property.

In March 2018, LCI conducted three separate inspections of the two-and-a-quarter story home and found the building “unfit for human occupancy” and ordered the landlords to vacate the non-compliant spaces, reduce the number of tenants from five to two, and add smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors immediately.

According to city land records, on March 20, 2018, Meiqiang and Xiaoli took out a building permit to remove the noncompliant dwelling units, remove one kitchen on the first floor, provide smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and provide egress windows per code.

“He pulled the permit,” Ramos said. “But he never acted on it.”

Ramos said that Meiqiang and Xiaoli had vacated the noncompliant units up until a few months ago. Then he and Assistant Building Inspector James Eggart got a call from a tenant on Feb. 12, 2019 complaining about no heat in the apartment.

When they went out to inspect, they found that the illegal units were still in place. When they spoke with the tenant and the landlord, they learned that the illegal units had been in place, and occupied, since late 2018.

“The tenants will be relocated to a safe place,” Ramos said about the two currently living out of the Long Wharf hotel. “We’re glad we were able to do what we did on Mechanic.”

Boxcutter Response

68 Mechanic isn’t the only New Haven property that Meiqiang and Xiali own. They also own a two-family house at 48 Vernon St., a two-family house at 480 Elm St., a single-family house at 129 Orchard St., and a three-unit commercial-turned-residential property at 154 Minor St.

“We’re gonna check for licenses,” Ramos said about the Guilford landlords’ three other local properties.

On Thursday afternoon, this reporter biked around the Hill, West River, and Edgewood to check out the conditions at the three other properties owned by the supersizing landlords.

At nearly every single one, ice coated the front steps. Boarded-up garages and towering, dead trees filled the backyards.

The Vernon Street two-family had five names listed on the mailbox. The Elm Street two-family had three.

Wearing a black hoodie, jeans, and glasses, Meiqiang was outside of his Orchard Street home, putting construction equipment into the back of his flatbed pickup truck.

He told the Independent that he plans to sell the condemned Mechanic Street property.

When asked if and how he had responded to the LCI’s unit-reduction order from March 2018, he did not answer. He got in his truck, and drove away.

He was spotted again later in the afternoon outside of 68 Mechanic. He paced up and down the sidewalk outside of the home, refusing to answer questions about the property’s conditions.

“I’m sorry, I’m embarrassed,” he said. “I have a right to walk around, don’t I?”

He then walked towards the property, and, five feet away and with his back to this reporter, took a boxcutter out of his pocket and flipped the blade.

He turned towards this reporter, turned again, tapped the boxcutter twice against a chainlink fence surrounding the property, and then silently walked in through the back entrance.

He didn’t come back out.

Meiqiang and Xiaoli lives in Guilford in a three-bedroom home with an assessed value of $414,000, according to the public record.

“Not Smart At All”

According to a former tenant at the 68 Mechanic property, Thursday wasn’t the first time that her old landlord had acted erratically.

Rachel Huebner, a 29-year-old local waitress, first moved into 68 Mechanic St. in 2013. She stayed there for a year, left, and then moved back in to a ground-floor two-bedroom in 2017.

She lived at the house until it was condemned on Wednesday. She’s now living out of a hotel room on Long Wharf.

It was Huebner who called LCI on Tuesday to let the agency know that she had no heat. By that time, she was living in an illegal upstairs one-bedroom, which Meiqiang had moved her to after she had complained about a lopsided toilet, loose bathroom tiles, and a sagging bathroom floor in her ground-floor apartment.

On Jan. 27, Meiqiang told Huebner to move upstairs into an illegal one-bedroom apartment, Huebner said. In that apartment she had problems with broken kitchen stove tops and uneven heating, which was controlled by a groundfloor thermostat.

“I was scared,” she said. “I didn’t know what would happen.”

Rachel Huebner phonoHuebner showed the Independent a text message exchange she had with Meiqiang earlier on Tuesday.

“Hi Rachel,” Meiqiang wrote. “Officer Rafeya [sp.] stopped by the house and ordering the house being shut down by tomorrow 10 AM, everyone has to go. Please look for another place right away.”

“Yeah well he also informed me you’re responsible for my hotel,” Huebner responded.

“Please Rachel,” Meiqiang wrote, “I can not afford to pay hotel for you. You have not paid rent for last month and this month, heating bills are so high, please please.

“You have put me into big trouble now and I have been friendly with you, right?”

Huebner responded that Meiqiang lives in a house worth nearly half a million dollars in Guilford. Surely he can afford to put her up in a hotel.

“Believe or not Rachel, the house you are staying is much warmer than where I am sleeping every night,” he replied, “again your kindness is much appreciated.”

He then offered Huebner a room at a local Airbnb. Huebner replies that that Airbnb is at one of his other properties in the city, and that she will not stay there.

Meiqiang responded that he has just paid $8,160 for his property taxes, and that the monthly heating bill for his Mechanic Street property was over $1,000 in December. He said the seven-day hotel stay at Long Wharf would also be over $1,000.

“You are right,” he wrote to Huebner. “I am not smart at all and did stupid things here. I would really appreciate if there is any way we could work on this.”

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posted by: Kevin McCarthy on February 15, 2019  9:17am

The city’s actions were warranted. But we need to find a way to permit the safe and legal operation of rooming houses as a housing option for residents such as Huebner. The Affordable Housing Task Force has made several useful recommendations in this area, but more work is needed.

posted by: Hill Resident on February 15, 2019  11:34am

The city had first cited these landlords for that very same violation at the illegal rooming house nearly a year ago, but the landlords failed to fix the problem. When a property owner has violations at one property, it stands to reason that there are violations at their other properties, so they warrant immediate inspections also. Where is the follow up for the year old citations? What will the AHTF do that the current agencies we already have in place cannot? Who is responsible for enforcement of current ordinances? Who is responsible for the collection of fines? Who is responsible for following up on citations? I agree that safe, legal and affordable housing options for single residence occupancy is needed, but if we don’t fix the wheels we already have that are broken, but instead keep creating new wheels, then we’re gonna end up with a yard full of broken wheels.

posted by: LookOut on February 15, 2019  1:45pm

The city has so many people in various agencies that are supposed to deal with these type of things yet action is ALWAYS slow or non-existent.  Not to excuse the actions of this landlord but he paid over $8K in taxes for this rather small property for 6 months.  If the city is going to take so much money from its residents, surely it should be able to provide basic services.

posted by: Dennis Serf on February 15, 2019  2:13pm

The owners actions are unacceptable. The day-to-day treatment of the tenants is bad enough. But, if there were a fire they’d be putting at risk the lives of the residents and first responders. Our New Haven has initiated a project to shine a light and bring pressure (legally, of course) on the slumlords (many of whom live comfortably out of town) who are destroying our neighborhoods. If you have a property you would like to bring to our attention, please email me directly at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Dennis Serfilippi
https://www.ournewhaven.org/

posted by: robn on February 15, 2019  2:24pm

This guy menaced a reporter with a box cutter….that’s threatening in the second degree…he should be arrested.

posted by: Esbey on February 15, 2019  2:44pm

I second Kevin McCarthy’s point. This was a bad situation in any light, but we should make it possible to run a responsible rooming house. A safe and cheap room would be a godsend for many people.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on February 15, 2019  3:25pm

Hill Resident, the Task Force recommended adding staff for LCI code enforcement, working with state agencies for criminal enforcement of serious violations, and various steps to increase the supply of rooming and boarding houses.

One of the problems for code enforcement is the lack of a hearing officer to hear appeals of fines for violations. (Even slumlords have a due process right to such hearings and in the absence of hearing officer, the city cannot enforce a fine if the property owner contests it.) A lawyer volunteered to take on this role on a pro bono basis at the last Downtown/Wooster Square Management Team. But the city has been aware of this issue for several years, and I am not optimistic that the city will take her up in her officer.

posted by: CityYankee on February 15, 2019  7:07pm

Rachel should not have moved back to Mechanic St.  A slumlord is pretty easy to spot but they seem to get away with quite a lot till something like this happens.  BTW,  though,  sometimes tenants agree to clear snow for the landlord.  I wonder if this is the fault of the landlord or perhaps of someone who did not keep their end of the bargain?

posted by: wendy1 on February 15, 2019  9:12pm

Too bad we only have 12 building inspectors.

posted by: fastdriver on February 16, 2019  11:35am

As always , LCI either has no comment or their excuse is they don’t have enough staff! This city needs to have these agencies fully staffed just like the mayor’s office is fully staffed! When a property receives a citation and then there is no follow up until almost a year later that is an outrageous situation. The slum landlords need to be driven out of New Haven.  When they don’t comply with any ordinances and don’t rehab their properties properly then the rents should be held from them until such things are fixed and up to code! New Haven needs the money that we can collect from fines. They should also do a better job of using their license plate scanner to see who is not paying the property tax on their automobiles.

posted by: STANDUP on February 17, 2019  12:32am

I do not like the idea of rooming house. You have to think of trash and parking. That can cause and issue both summer and winter.

posted by: mohovs on February 17, 2019  9:26am

Great job on shutting this down. What about the other 1000 illegal apartments in the city that are endangering residents.

posted by: fastdriver on February 17, 2019  12:28pm

Always wondered- I see a LOT of MANDY houses in the Hill and wondered who is responsible for shoveling the sidewalks? Some knowledgeable insider here must know. Thanks in advance.

posted by: New Haven Student on February 17, 2019  6:01pm

Esbey, and others, just to clarify— this wasn’t a house where people paid for a room and shared bathrooms and common space. This was a house where people lived in their own apartments with their own bathrooms and kitchens.

Some of the tenants were under the false impression that the landlord had “resolved” the issues last March, because that’s what he told them, and they had planned on staying there short-term anyway. It was an affordable, yet obviously not ideal, apartment option for students, and others, in a safe neighborhood.

Tenants were not aware of how many apartments were illegally constructed in the building, because not all were occupied at the time. The landlord’s house in Guilford is actually worth around $650k, which can be easily determined online. It is obvious that the same situation is going on in his other New Haven properties, which he also advertises on Airbnb under a fake name. I’m surprised no one has commented out of concern for where the displaced tenants will go next, having their lives totally uprooted on a midweek morning without any notice.

posted by: Ryn111 on February 19, 2019  11:04am

Kevin,  the AHTF report was essentially useless with zero actionable or measurable goals recommended. 

“Add staff, change zoning etc” with no recommendation on how to provide funds to do so.

Under the guise of “affordability” which is still measured off the 30% rent/income ratio which was set in place as a guide by the government 40 years ago. It is still a good rule of thumb but affordability varies person to person and street to street. This was really the BOA union trying to save face after attempting to block the operation of the Duncan hotel as a nonunion.

There are housing issues in this city and this article speaks to that. Where is the enforcement on landlords who own multiple properties and put people in danger? Who is responsible for clearing the sidewalks at Mandy Management homes? Where are the revenues from their fines?

posted by: fastdriver on February 19, 2019  1:13pm

Ryn111-

LOL…LOL…LOL…Revenues from the fines? LCI will tell you that they don’t have enough staff to collect them! MORE money lost that could go into the city coffers!

posted by: Ryn111 on February 19, 2019  10:01pm

Well good new for us LCI will soon be buying these homes!!! If they cant collect a fine im sure they will be great housing developers.