Absentee Landlords Caught Supersizing

Thomas Breen photoThe city found a Mechanic Street home owned by two Guilford-based landlords to be “unfit for human occupancy” due to an absence of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, unpermitted and uninspected interior renovations, and the illegal conversion of a two-family dwelling into five separate rental units.

A survey of the landlords’ three other New Haven properties found that this isn’t the first time they’ve crammed more families than allowed into a residential property, and that they may be continuing with this practice of unpermitted overcrowding beyond the home on Mechanic Street.

From March 7 through March 26, inspectors from the city’s building department and the city’s anti-blight agency, Livable City Initiative (LCI), conducted three separate inspections of the two-and-a-quarter story home at 68 Mechanic St. in East Rock, according to public records.

The building is owned by Guilford-based landlords Xie Meiqiang and Ren Xiaoli. Xie and Ren also own residential properties at 480 Elm St., 48 Vernon St., and 154 Minor St.

LCI found the Mechanic Street 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.

“It’s not a lot of work,” Assistant Building Inspector James Eggart said about what he has required the landlords to do to fix up 68 Mechanic St. “But what happened when it was done, it was just not done very good.”

Eggart said that Xie and Ren have been compliant thus far with the building department’s orders to fix up and reduce occupancy at 68 Mechanic St. He said that he did not know of any other red flags at other New Haven properties owned by the Guilford couple.

But a quick tour of the three properties that Xie and Ren own in the Dwight and Hill neighborhoods revealed buildings that, from the outside and according to neighbors and tenants, may be run in a similar way as the Mechanic Street home.

The front and backyards are overgrown or filled with debris. Facades are chipped and the porches and decks are sagging. There are conspicuous broken windows and wires snaking up and down all sides of the buildings.

Neighbors and tenants, asking to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said that Xie and Ren run “boarding houses” with up to 6 different tenants living in properties zoned as two-family only.

They said that the landlords are not responsive to tenants’ concerns with the buildings’ conditions, and that the buildings themselves are eyesores on residential blocks otherwise populated by well-maintained owner-occupant homes.

“He Mickey Mouses everything,” one tenant told the Independent about Xie’s work as a landlord. “It’s hardly worth asking to fix something because it ends up worse.”

Xie said that he is working with the building department on fixing up the Mechanic Street property, and that the other properties that he and his wife own are in compliance with city code.

Xie told the Independent that he and Ren are part-time landlords, and that the only properties they own are the four in New Haven. He said that they do not make a lot of money from the properties, and do not work any other jobs.

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

68 Mechanic St.

During a March 7 inspection of 68 Mechanic St., Assistant Building Inspector Eggart found that “additional dwelling units have been constructed without the required permit and/or approvals,” according to a “Notice of Violation and Order to Abate” that the department sent to Xie and Ren on March 8. The inspection found that the building, which is zoned as a two-family residence, had been illegally converted to house five individual tenants.

“Furthermore,” the notice reads, “no inspections have been conducted to determine safety and compliance with the Connecticut State Building Code” for these additional dwelling units. The notice orders the landlords to immediately vacate the non-compliant spaces and set up an inspection appointment with the building department.

On March 22, LCI sent a letter to the landlords indicating inspector Edward Rodriguez had found the property “unfit for human occupancy.” A March 27 Housing Code Compliance Notice details the specific nature of the violations.

The notice identifies missing smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors throughout the building, and orders the landlords to install them within 24 hours.

The notice also identifies the unpermitted and illegal conversion of the two-family dwelling into five separate rental units. The notice orders the landlords to immediately reduce the occupancy of the building to fit the two-family maximum.

Eggart and Xie confirmed that the Mechanic Street home now currently houses only two tenants, and no longer five.

Eggart detailed for Xie what he needs to do to bring the two-family dwelling back into compliance with city code. He said that a hollow wooden door that is currently used as a unit entry needs to be replaced with a solid core door or a metal door; that an unpermitted kitchen needs to be removed from the first floor; and that “little walls” that have been put up to break the two-family residence into five different units need to be taken down and replaced with doorways to allow for contiguous hallways and proper access to exit stairwells.

“This guy, now that we moved three of his tenants out, he wants to fix it all up and do it right,” Eggart said. “He’s been very proactive and wants to do” the necessary fixes.

On March 20, Xie took out a building permit to remove the unpermitted three dwelling; to remove one kitchen on the first floor; and to provide smoke detectors and egress windows per code.

“We are working with James Eggart,” Xie told the Independent. “He instructed me to do whatever we are supposed to do, and to bring everything into order.”

One tenant told the Independent that the problems at 68 Mechanic St. didn’t stop with the overcrowding. The tenant said that the landlords tiled over a unit’s bathroom floor to cover up mold. The tenant said that, when parts of a unit’s kitchen ceiling collapsed into the sink, the landlords put up a flimsy patch and said that the tenants on the floor above would take care of the rest of the repairs

The tenant also said that at one point in March, the carbon monoxide level in the building reached 30ppm, which led one of the tenants to call the fire department.

“The furnace was broken,” Xie responded. “That’s all it’s about. And I immediately installed a new furnace. Everything’s fine. The furnace and the radiator inside was broken. We installed a new one.”

LCI Deputy Director Rafael Ramos confirmed that he initially visited the property in early March at the request of the fire department after it received an after-hours call about a carbon monoxide scare. Ramos said he found “three too many apartments” and places where existing smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors had been removed to make way for the haphazard conversion of the two-family home into five separate units.

Xie and Ren first purchased the 1,600 square-foot home in 2008.

Eggart said that he is waiting on the landlords to confirm that they have finished the necessary construction so that he can come by, inspect the property and make sure it is up to code. Xie said that he plans on inviting Eggart to the property later this week.

Ramos said that LCI is working with the landlord and the building department to get back into the building to confirm that the noncompliant units have been closed, and that smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors have been reinstalled.

48 Vernon St.

One block west of the Yale Children’s Hospital on Howard Avenue in the Hill stands 48 Vernon St., a two-family, two-and-a-half story vinyl-sided home with a gap-toothed picket fence and black cables snaking up and down its façade. The second-story porch sags and a dead, branchless 50-foot tree stands high above the back parking lot.

“This is the worst home on the block,” said one neighbor. The neighbor said that the rest of the homes on Vernon Street are well-kept and primarily owner-occupied, and that the block has made a significant resurgence over the course of the past decade. The one house that continues to bring the block down, said the neighbor, is 48 Vernon St.

The neighbor said that Xie and Ren run the place like a “boarding house”: housing six different tenants in the two-family home.

There are six names listed on the home’s mailbox. Xie maintained that the building is occupied by only three tenants, all of whom are Yale medical students.

The neighbor said that a tree fell over during one of last month’s storms and crushed a tenant’s car in the parking lot. He said that he has been warning the landlord for years about another precarious tree, but Xie refuses to take care of it.

Xie and Ren purchased the 2,700-square-foot home on Vernon Street in 2011.

154 Minor St.

The three-story concrete and cinderblock building at 154 Minor St., just across the street from Columbus House, used to be a community center run by the local elderly home Casa Otonal.

Xie and Ren purchased the building in 2013 and converted it into a three-family residence.

On Oct. 30, 2014, city building inspectors found that the landlords had illegally converted the three-family property into a six-family residence.

Without permits and inspections, Xie and Ren had built three additional bathrooms, three additional shower stalls, six gas stoves with piping from the basement, and electrical installations within the walls.

The city ordered the landlords to immediately cease occupancy of the building.

Xie said that no one lives in the property right now. Eggart said that he was not aware of any current problems at that location.

480 Elm St.

At the corner of Elm and Garden Streets in the Dwight neighborhood stands 480 Elm St., a green, two-story, two-family home owned by Ren Xiaoli. The building is faced by chipped wooden shingles, a sagging porch, and a shattered second floor window. A chipped tile path connects the rotting front steps to the backyard.

“This place gets the job done,” said one tenant. Xie said that two families live in the building.

Ren purchased the 1,900 square-foot home in 2014.

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posted by: NHVCyclist on April 10, 2018  3:37pm

Clearly there is non-compliant activity happening here which I’m glad the Building Department is addressing. 
But let’s be restrained when vilifying slumlords, sticking only to the clear & proven violations - when we overstep, it ends up making things more difficult for those who try their best to do the right thing.

1) Wires all over the house - Obviously the example here is excessive, but many multi-family homes in New Haven have a bit of a “rats nest” of Cable TV/Internet wire on their facade.  My house has a bunch of inactive cable from years of previous tenants, and even some of the currently-in-use cable is a hackjob. This is 100% on Comcast.  They do poor install work, and they will not come out to remove inactive cabling.  It’s also illegal for me to start cutting wires coming from their poles, so the wires stay…

2) More names on the mailbox than there are units - In the vast majority of cases this is not an indication of anything illegal.  Couples who do not share the same last name are allowed to share an apartment.  Roommates are allowed to share an apartment - often 3, 4, or more different last names in one apartment.  They lease that unit jointly, this does not indicate illegal usage as a “boarding house.”

3) Slanted Porches - Many of the older homes had intentionally-slanted porches to make sure water runs off to prevent wood rot, which back then was not pressure-treated and usually had no gaps to allow water to drain.  Vinyl cladding only serves to amplify the visual effect of slanting, which is more subdued with the original wood.  Let’s leave it to the building department to determine what is not structurally sound and require the owners to take action where necessary.

posted by: robn on April 10, 2018  3:53pm

Wow. Thank you absentee slumlords!

posted by: Edward Francis on April 10, 2018  6:19pm

Mechanic Street is in the Goatville neighborhood…Many, many articles (NH Register, NH Independent and real estate) continue to pirate the Goatville name and turn it into East Rock…Goatville has a long history but probably the name is not sophisticated enough for developers, real estate and Yale to accept.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on April 10, 2018  6:46pm

I suspect a fair number of buildings have more units than permitted. It should be easy for the city to compare the number of authorized units at an address with the number of electric accounts there. If the latter exceeds the former, the Building Department should determine whether there is a Building Code violation. There are legitimate reasons for a unit to have more than one account, but this is uncommon.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on April 10, 2018  7:22pm

NHVCyclist,
Those are helpful qualifying remarks useful to keep in mind, even though the cases specifically explored in this article appear to be transparently exploitative.

Excellent article, Tom - thanks for doing the research.

Something I’m wondering about is if carving a two-family house into 5 separate apartments is necessarily a bad thing. Across the street from 68 Mechanic Street, for instance, the Corsair offers 450 square foot studio apartments for $1700 per month. 68 Mechanic Street has about 2,500 square feet of inhabitable floor area, not including porches and basement areas. That works out to 500 square feet per unit for 5 units. While I don’t think it was the case here, is there a scenario where a responsible property owner could create very attractive 500 square foot apartments in a two-family house? I imagine being able to do so would help many property owners deal with the proposed 11% tax hike. For me, there’s an issue with encouraging out-of-state developers to hire out-of-town architects and contractors to build 450 square foot studios, while requiring homeowners directly across the street to have a minimum of 1,000 square feet of floor area per dwelling unit.

I wonder if we need to evaluate our land use regulations from the perspective of “who is encouraged to develop and who is discouraged from developing under the current system”. It seems that efforts to expand the BD-1 District, rezone 201 Munson Street, amend the Westville Village zone, and other planning efforts are meant to encourage outside developers to erect large apartment complexes. And restrictive zoning regulations in districts with small-time property owners encourages real estate investors to carve up houses into illegal apartments. Meanwhile property owners that play by the rules have to eat higher property taxes. I think there is a need for a citywide conversation about expanding opportunities for local property owners and owner-occupants to develop in New Haven.

posted by: fastdriver on April 10, 2018  8:00pm

So, the landlords live in a $414,000 home in Guilford and do not work, while their New Haven homes are a mess with illegal tenants and illegal construction. Nice if you can get away with it. I wonder how many OTHER absentee landlord homes in New Haven are just like these four?

Maybe LCI should start investigating all homes that are not owner occupied. I bet they would find many more just like these four!

posted by: mohovs on April 10, 2018  8:51pm

These landlords are lucky no one got injured when the co levels were high. They were so close to a lifetime in jail. The tenants should be suing the owners for recklessly endangering their lives. It’s ashame these landlords only get a slap on the wrist.

posted by: 1644 on April 10, 2018  9:03pm

Those wires look like communication, not power, cables.  My guess is everyone has their own cable account.
As a small time landlord, it’s really hard to make only money.  The best one can hope for is to cover expenses while land banking.  No one should expect to live off the rent on a few houses like these.
Our law making landlords responsible for smoke dectectors in the dwellings is absurd.  Most tenants just rip them out to avoid “false alarms when cooking. 
I often have a lot of sympathy for landlords like Her who try.  These landlords are just trying to get away with as much as they can: maximize rent while minimizing expenses while breaking multiple laws.  LCI should be much tougher on them.

posted by: NHVCyclist on April 10, 2018  10:00pm

Kevin - The electrical account thing won’t work for 2 reasons:
- First, many multi-family homes have a house meter. This became code at some point. For example, the 2 family I live in has 3 lines of electrical service.  The 2
Family next door only has 1 line. The last 2 family I lived in had 2 lines.
- Second, if the apartments are illegal, they probably don’t have separate electrical service.  If a single legal unit is split in two, the landlord probably just covers the electric bill. Or in a truly crummy scenario, one tenant is unknowingly covering another’s electrical usage. 

Fastdriver - all homes with 2 or more non-owner-occupied units are already subject to inspection and licensure by LCI.  The program is not well communicated and they only seem to crack down on compliance once every few years, so yes things slip through the cracks. 
There are also countless non-owner-occupied properties in New Haven that are wonderful places to live. And there are owner-occupied properties that are neighborhood nusicnces and unfit for human habitation.  That’s where I take issue with vilifying an entire category of many thousands of owners based on a few bad apples.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on April 10, 2018  10:46pm

Jonathan, there’s nothing inherently wrong in converting a legal two-family building into a legal five-family building, but that is not what happened here. We agree that the building and zoning codes should permit small units, but the conversion has to be done in a way that does not jeopardize tenant safety. As you suggest, a thoughtful review of the city’s land use policies is in order.

posted by: robn on April 11, 2018  7:47am

KM, There may be nothing inherently wrong with greater density, but what is wrong is imposing that change upon neighbors who have made long term investments. People who have invested their hard earned money in a neighborhood of a certain density (2-3 family houses) should not have greater density forced upon them by fiat because it means less peace and quiet and probably more parking problems (a historic issue on Mechanic street since many properties do not have driveways.) Larger developments have the economy of scale to accommodate things like buffer zones and parking, but small residential structures cannot.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on April 11, 2018  8:17am

NHVCyclist, I’m making the opposite point. There are indeed multi family buildings (legal and illegal) with a master meter. But if a legal two-family has three accounts, there is probably a third unit there.  This approach won’t work in all cases, for the reasons you give in your second point. But it has the advantage of simplicity and minimal cost.

Robn, as in most things, the issue is context specific. There are cases where allowing accessory dwelling units would in fact impose real costs on neighbors. There are others where the impacts would be minimal and outweighed by the benefits to the owner and the creation of affordable housing.

posted by: fastdriver on April 11, 2018  8:27am

NHVCyclist-

What you say may be true, but we seem to hear/read about absentee landlord housing more than owner occupied housing being unfit to live in or badly in need of repairs. That may be because of LCI’s lack of attention. How many times have we heard them complain that they don’t have enough inspectors? With the looks of those houses and their exterior condition, I wouldn’t want to live next door to that! The other thing not mentioned in the article is if those Guilford owners were FINED by LCI. I don’t remember seeing anything about that! MAYBE IF LCI was more vigilient about inspections and fines, these SLUMLORDS would get on the ball and keep their rentals in better shape! I guess I live in a fantasy world where people take pride in their homes or rentals!

The other thing you addressed is electric meters. I was always under the impression that a 2-family house would have 3 meters-, a 3-family house would have 4 meters etc. one for each family and one for common areas like hallways, front porch, yard lights etc. Maybe that wasn’t the case years ago, but I believe it is now.

None of these issues will ever be resolved if those in charge don’t do their due diligence. Sad.

posted by: NHVCyclist on April 11, 2018  8:32am

Kevin, I get what you’re trying to say, but I dunno…I think it’s flawed.
Current code requires 3 lines of service for a 2 family.  Obviously there are many grandfathered-in buildings with fewer lines, but 3 for 2 units is the ideal configuration. That way no tenant is paying for shared items (exterior lights, shared laundry, etc).

It sends the wrong message if the city uses compliance with current code as cause for inquiry, rather than the opposite.

Instead they could just better communicate & enforce existing LCI inspection requirements. That’s an easy catch-all that requires no new legislation, no new city staff we can’t afford, and no more prodding/costs for already overburdened homewonwers.

posted by: NHVCyclist on April 11, 2018  9:45am

fastdriver - As far as what we “we seem to hear/read,” that isn’t data.  If someone lives in a home they own, and it’s in terrible disrepair, that’s not a news story.  In fact, if NHI reported on that like they do slumlords with crappy houses, it would seem quite insensitive.  Those owner-occupants may be going through some personal crisis.
On my old block in Wooster Square, an owner-occupant with a falling-apart house used to rummage through neighbors’ trash bins for cans or scrap metal.  Wonder how he will cope with the proposed 11% tax increase…

I think we are in agreement though - slumlords need to face consequences.  We have a city department that is supposed to take care of this - LCI.  We do not need to pass more laws, restrictions, or burdens on law-abiding homeowners.  I know they have limited staff, but there are simple things they can do to force compliance, such as using electronic data to ensure that everyone who should sign up, does sign up*.  This is not just a New Haven issue, you hear about this stuff nationwide.

You can look up permits yourself using the ViewPermit site.  I plugged in some random addresses that I know have at least 2 non-owner-occupied units, and some of them are not registered with LCI.  In most cases, these are perfectly nice houses that I’m sure would pass without issue.  Point is, LCI does not do a good job forcing compliance.

posted by: challenge on April 11, 2018  5:56pm

Maximizing profit from the marginalized in our community. Wonder if this couple is conducting business like that in Guilford. Shameful and all those tyring to excuse their shameful behavior. Shame on you.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on April 11, 2018  6:14pm

Kevin,
Are you suggesting to go through the electric company to find account information and compare that with the legal occupancy of buildings?

NHVCyclist,
I agree about enforcing the existing regulations, but I wonder if part of the issue is that there are so many violators that staff cannot reasonably crack down on them all. I suspect that the periodic sweeps are meant as a deterrence, rather than a genuine effort to achieve uniform compliance. For me, that makes me question whether the issue is exploitative landlords, unreasonable regulations that are overly restrictive, or a combination of both.

robn,
I don’t think anyone has suggested a forced upzoning of the entire city. I have suggested a need for a series of public conversations about zoning, which might result in upzoning in some neighborhoods, but that would be dependent on what neighborhoods choose to do. If it were up to me (which it isn’t), I might try to frame the conversation around questions of who is encouraged to develop, who actually develops, and who benefits from development? Issues like building form, use, and other typical ways of thinking about zoning would still play an important, albeit secondary, role in the conversation. I suspect that zoning oriented to encourage local owner-occupants to develop and reap the benefits of developing will look different from zoning oriented around attracting large out-of-state developers to build large complexes that export rent out of the City.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on April 11, 2018  7:41pm

NHVCyclist, better communications is always a good thing, and the city does not have the legal authority to require compliance with the current code for grandfathered buildings. I also should have been clearer that I’m talking about account names, rather than meters. But unless my neighborhood (East Rock) is unusual, there are lots of illegal units across the city. In some cases, as on Mechanic Street, these units raise serious health and safety issues.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on April 11, 2018  10:33pm

Jonathan, yes. As NHVCyclist notes, this approach is not foolproof. But if there is more than one account at an address beyond the number of authorized units, there are probably illegal units there. I would use this as a diagnostic; citing a building for code violations requires an inspection.

posted by: NHVCyclist on April 12, 2018  10:49am

Another issue with the electrical account theory -

One account corresponds to one Meter, or line of service coming to the house.

UI will not run more lines of service to a house without a permit.

The building department is not going to issue you a permit to install 5 meters on a 2-unit building, at least not without raising serious questions.
Even if they did issue the permit, when they come out to inspect the work they will notice the illegal apartments.

Point is, this is not a reliable method.

What is reliable are the city tax records.  What LCI is SUPPOSED to do is notify every listed owner of a 2-unit or more building that they must register for a Residential License with LCI. This is not me making a suggestion - it is in city ordinance that LCI must do this, but they don’t.  There is also a fine for non-compliance.
2-family houses with at least 1 owner occupied unit are exempt from inspection, but the owner is supposed to fill out an exemption form in order to be in compliance.

So again, no need to reinvent the wheel.  Just use existing city ordinances and departments, and existing accurate city records.