Two weeks after the city condemned a decaying 41-unit apartment complex at 66 Norton St., 19 relocated households remain in rundown motels, 12 have moved into new apartments, and two are staying with family members as they continue to look for new places to live.
Even as city officials have praised the building’s landlords for ponying up the time and resources to help relocate the displaced tenants, many former tenants still find themselves in an uncomfortable and uncertain limbo between temporary motel stays and permanent new homes.
On Feb. 22, a routine city inspection and subsequent structural analysis determined that 66 Norton St., a 100-year-old apartment complex owned by Brooklyn-based realtor Ernest Schemitsch and managed by New Haven landlord Mendy Katz, was no longer safe to inhabit because of sagging floors, ceiling leaks and rotting wood.
The city’s building official later called the rot and decay in 66 Norton’s structural support beams the worst he has seen in his two decades on the job.
Eighty tenants living in 33 apartment units at the complex had 45 minutes to pack their essential belongings and vacate the building.
In the two weeks since the building was condemned, tenants who could not immediately find replacement lodging of their own have been living at the Three Judges Motor Lodge, the New Haven Inn and the Regal Inn, three Amity motels off of Exit 59 on the Wilbur Cross Parkway. They have been living off of prepaid Visa cards provided by the building’s management company, and have relied on city housing staffers, city firefighters and management to help them find new permanent homes. They won’t be moving back into 66 Norton, which officials expect will need extensive repairs before it can reopen. Gradually the tenants have been escorted into 66 Norton to retrieve belongings once they find new places to live. City Building Official Jim Turcio said that the city and the property managers must move all of the tenants’ belongings out of 66 Norton before an independent structural engineer, hired by the property management, can start demolishing walls and looking inside to see just how unsound the building actually is.
Rafael Ramos, the deputy director of the city’s anti-blight agency, Livable City Initiative (LCI), has been meeting one on one with tenants to explain that the landlords will continue to foot the bills for their hotel stays while the landlords and the city help find the tenants new permanent housing. (Ramos provided the numbers used in the first paragraph of this story.)
Ramos said that six more of the 19 families still living in motels are scheduled to move into new apartments by Saturday. Each new apartment must pass a safety inspection by LCI before tenants can move in.
Some tenants who have yet to find a new home describe the past two weeks living out of a motel room as uncomfortable, inconvenient, disgusting and sometimes frightening.
Others who think that they have found a new home have been stymied by uncertainty as to when they can move in, and how much they will need to pay when they get there.
Others who have successfully relocated praise the management and the city for their help in a crisis, while noting unclear and inconsistent communication among the city, management and tenants as exacerbating tenant stress levels at a particularly sensitive time in their lives.
Still In Motels
Elsa Bradley is among those 66 Norton tenants still living in a second-floor motel room at the New Haven Inn. She said that she is scheduled to visit one apartment later on Friday and one on Sunday. She said she does not have a solid sense of when she will finally leave the hotel and set up in a new home.
“It’s terrible, but I’m trying to make it,” Bradley said while sitting on the edge of her full-size motel bed on Friday morning. She was joined by Esther Roberts, a “church sister” at Mount of God Tabernacle on Dixwell Avenue who visits Bradley four times a week to bring her homemade food, to drive her to her job at Arden House, or to bring her to her own home for a night and a meal away from the hotel.
“Thank God for her and my son,” Bradley said with a soft smile. “She’s my little rock.”
She said that she has struggled in the past two weeks to buy a meal that is not fast food. Since the room has no kitchen, she relies upon her toaster, tea kettle and mini-fridge when Roberts does not bring her food.
“It’s so inconvenient,” she said. “I’m not going to tell you that I’m not stressed out.” She said that she had to go to the emergency room earlier this week because of extremely high blood pressure.
She said that Stacey O’Connell, who has been overseeing tenant relocation on behalf of Katz and the building’s management company, regularly comes by the motel lobby with prepaid Visa cards to cover the cost of food and transportation. These cards average to $25 per day.
O’Connell gave Bradley a list of realtors and apartment leads to follow up on; she has had no luck thus far. She visited one apartment off I-91’s Exit 8, but said that the room “didn’t look up to my marks.” She said that she called one realtor who said he would get back to her, but never called back.
She said that finding a new apartment has been all the more of a challenge because she does not see many rooms for rent that offer the same size for the same price as what she was paying at 66 Norton. She said that she paid $900 per month for a three-bedroom apartment at 66 Norton, where she lived for over four years. She said that, now that her daughter is married and living elsewhere and her son is spending more and more time with his girlfriend, she would be happy settling for a two bedroom apartment, so long as she does not have to pay much more than what she was paying before.
She said that she would prefer not to live in another building managed by O’Connell and Katz. “If I could get out of it, that would be best,” she said. “Because I don’t want to end up back in the same situation.”
She said that, even though she was generally quite happy at her apartment at 66 Norton, in the past year, she would occasionally go to sleep and wake up with a swollen eye, rashes on her arms, and swollen feet. She is not sure what caused that swelling, but thinks that it had something to do with the condition of her apartment.
For some former tenants on the brink of finding a new home, they cannot leave the motels behind quickly enough.
Veronica Lifland, 26, had been living with a roommate in a first-floor, one-bedroom apartment at 66 Norton since April 2017.
She said that moving from her old apartment, which was spacious enough to feel like a two bedroom, to a single room at the Regal Inn for two weeks has been difficult.
Lifland said that she and her roommate, a close friend who is not her boyfriend, had to share a double bed for the duration of their stay in a cockroach-infested room. She said she can feel the cockroaches crawl across her bed at night. The shower has no head, just a tube that spits out water, she said; the blankets have burn holes, while electrical sockets lack protective covering. The room has no lamps, she said.
She said that one night she had to call the police when a naked man showed up outside of her door and peered in through her window.
“To go from [my old apartment] to this hotel room was awful,” she said.
On Thursday afternoon, Lifland sat in the back of a U-Haul truck parked outside of 66 Norton, waiting to move her furniture and belongings to a new Whalley Avenue apartment that O’Connell had helped her and her roommate find.
Thrilled to be moving into a new apartment after two weeks at the Regal Inn, Lifland looked crestfallen when she learned from LCI staffer Mark Stroud that the new room had not yet passed inspection. She would have to wait until LCI took a closer look at the apartment and got back to her and O’Connell about its habitability.
As of Friday, Lifland had not yet heard back about whether or not she would be able to move from her hotel room and into the new apartment on Whalley Avenue.
Another tenant, Shelley Southerland said that she, her husband and her three children hope their two-week stay at the New Haven Inn is about to come to an end. She said that she has found a new apartment on Shelton Avenue, and hopes to move in as soon as the management company transfers over the security deposit and first month’s rent.
“We can’t cook,” she said about her time at the New Haven Inn. “We just have to keep buying fast food.”
All of her furniture and many of her family’s clothes remain at 66 Norton. She will not be able to access any of that property until she and her family have a new home to move to. She said that management has helped her look for a new apartment; she visited four in the past two weeks. She said the management company is reluctant to pay for anything more expensive than the $845 per month she was paying for her two bedroom at 66 Norton.
In New Homes
Some tenants, like Josh Weinstein, have successfully relocated to new apartments.
“Although the situation should never have happened, now that it has, the management seems to be taking most of the right steps,” Weinstein wrote in an email to the Independent earlier this week. Weinstein, a systems engineer at Sikorsky Aircraft, had lived at 66 Norton since May 2017.
He said that during his weeklong stay at the Regal Inn, he was grateful that 66 Norton management worked closely with LCI and the fire department to facilitate the moving of tenants and their property. He said that management promised to pay for tenants’ hotel rooms, provide daily funds for food, help tenants find housing, return security deposits, pro-rate February rents, and pay the first month’s rent at new residences. He said that, as far as he could tell, management is following through on those promises thus far.
However, he wrote, communication between management and tenants has not always been clear, particularly because management has so heavily relied on O’Connell alone to oversee the relocation efforts.
“There is insufficient staff to seamlessly manage the logistics and one-on-one communication with tenants,” he wrote, “and when tensions and stress are already high. [T]his leads to both very unhappy tenants and stressed-out management when the subtlest thing goes wrong, or someone is late, or a miscommunication ensues, even when in most cases things are being done with good intentions. The operation seems to be managed on the ground just by one person working overtime and with little rest, and there is not someone available to provide or address tenants questions on an on-going basis. As a result, many tenants don’t feel heard or looked out for.”
Weinstein said that management had put him in touch with a variety of landlords to help him find a new apartment. LCI provided a long list of other housing options. Ultimately, he found a place on his own with the help of a friend, and is now living with that friend in an apartment downtown.
Weinstein said that in general he had no problems during his stay at the Regal Inn, though he did not always feel safe in his room. He said that a drug deal happened in the room next door, and a number of times someone knocked on his door after dark and did not identify themselves when he asked who was there.
“I took my situation in context of where I was,” he wrote, “and thankfully nothing bad happened to me.”
“We’ve Done A Good Job”
Kate Pecerillo, a lawyer for New Haven Legal Assistance who is representing 13 households displaced from 66 Norton, said that her clients’ experiences over the past two weeks have ranged from relatively smooth to frustrating and confusing.
She said that two of her clients have moved into new permanent housing, one is currently living with family, and the other ten remain at the Regal Inn or the New Haven Inn.
“Rafael [Ramos] has done his best about one-on-one communication to tell them that they’re covered” by the management company at the motels, Pecerillo said. “But it’s still a problem that there’s no clear, unified, singular communication to everyone that you are covered.”
She said that one of her clients who had been staying at the Three Judges Motor Lodge was asked to leave by the motel management because Katz and O’Connell hadn’t paid for the room. Pecerillo said that her client abided by the request, left the motel, and had nowhere else to go.
Later that day, she said, she worked to ensure that her client got a room at the Regal Inn that was paid for by 66 Norton management.
She said that one of her clients, who is still at a motel is on dialysis, must leave the motel three times a week to get treatment.
Many of her clients have been confused about how and when to pick up the prepaid Visa cards provided by O’Connell, and do not quite understand the calculations used to determine why some households get $75 per card and some get as much as $150, Pecerillo said.
She said that O’Connell had set up a hotline for tenants to call to hear pre-recorded information about big happenings, like when moves were rescheduled due to this week’s storms. But even with that hotline, she said, her tenants have not always known when or how best to reach O’Connell.
“At the end of the day,” Pecerillo said, “the city is responsible for relocation. The reliance on Stacey [O’Connell] as a member of the property management group to help people relocate and find new places is not adequate. She could hire a team and it wouldn’t be adequate.”
She said that she does not expect any property manager to be aggressively seeking the best possible apartments for someone to live in when they have a vested interest in some properties (i.e. the ones that they manage) over others.
“They are not neutral,” she continued. “They are not a relocation assistance group. There’s no requirement that tenants move into buildings that they’re affiliated with. They’re entitled to move into any apartment that they’re accepted at and that they can afford.”
During an Emergency Operation Center (EOC) announcement about Storm Elsa on Thursday, Rick Fontana, the city’s emergency management chief, praised Katz, O’Connell, LCI and the fire department for their work over the past two weeks in relocating tenants.
“We’ve done a good job over there,” he said. “The city’s been advocating for these residents. The owner and the manager of that building have done a great job in collaborating, getting those people in hotels, giving them food vouchers. That has been very good for our residents who were displaced for something that they had no control over.”
In response to the complaints, O’Connell told the Independent that “the process is moving along.”
“We have moved a lot of tenants that have new apartments” without providing details on just how long the management company expects it will take to help move out the remaining tenants, she said.
She said that she is working with different realtors in New Haven, West Haven, Hamden and East Haven to find the 66 Norton tenants new homes. Move-outs were cancelled last Friday and this Wednesday because of the weather. O’Connell said she hired an executive assistant to help her coordinate and better communicate with the tenants, and she plans to train that new staffer on Saturday.
“At this time, I am working with tenants and their prospective new landlords,” she wrote in a text message to the Independent earlier this week, “giving references, etc so that I can expedite the process of getting them into their new homes. This is my priority right now please understand I do not have any extra time to speak with you.”