The 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.
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.”
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.”
Huebner 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.”