Displaced Tenants’ Next Move Uncertain

Markeshia Ricks PhotoNew Haven Building Department photoA day after having suddenly to gather their belongings within 45 minutes to flee their structurally unsafe apartment building, Shelly Sutherland and Dwain Perkins and their three children were holed up in a dingy motel room with no way to cook food or heat their baby’s bottle — and no idea where they’re headed next.

They were among 80 people who had to flee 66 Norton St. Thursday night after city officials condemned it and warned it is in danger of collapse. (Read a full previous story about that here.)

The officials and the building’s manager, Mendy Katz, arranged to put the families up in hotels for now. Katz promised to help them find new housing.

But the families said they’re now living in conditions that are even more precarious in notoriously rundown motels, with no word on how soon they might make it to a better place.

“They just dumped us here,” Sutherland said at the Three Judges Motor Lodge, where her family is temporarily staying. She’s particularly worried about the impact of the room on her 7-year-old’s asthma, which she said developed in recent months amid mold-filled rooms at 66 Norton.

Katz told the Independent Friday afternoon that he had successfully found new apartments for 10 of the tenants. He said the building owner is paying for the rest to stay in hotels for the weekend, he said until he finds out Monday what inspectors say about the condition of the building — how soon tenants can retrieve belongings, and if the need will be to find them new apartments elsewhere, as expected.

Report: “IMMINENT DANGER”

Thomas Breen photoThe condemnation of 66 Norton occurred a day after Rick Mazzadra, from the city’s anti-blight agency, the Livable City Initiative (LCI), conducted a routine inspection and found dangerous conditions.

City Building Official Jim Turcio Friday said portions of the 41-unit Norton Street apartment building are in danger of collapse because of serious levels of rot and structural decay. He said that the decay and rot of the support beams at 66 Norton St. are more severe than anything he’s seen in his 21 years inspecting buildings for a living.

Turcio released preliminary findings of an independent structural engineer, Nic Cuoco of Cuoco Structural Engineers LLC, who had been hired by the building’s management company to inspect the property on Thursday.

The building is owned by Brooklyn-based realtor Ernest Schemitsch, and is run by New Haven’s real estate manager Mendy Katz. Turcio said that he has ordered Schemitsch to immediately hire a structural engineer to conduct a complete structural review of the entire building and its fire escapes. No one will be allowed back in the building until that review has been completed and the structural problems addressed. That could take a week or more.

In the structural engineer’s report, Cuoco writes that the management company and WesMarc Industries, a construction firm hired by the management company, had asked him to come to the building on Thursday to review “significantly deteriorated floor framing in the basement and the floor deformation in apartment #33 and #46.”

He said that what he found, along with LCI’s Rick Mazzadra, was significantly more widespread than just the basement and two upper-level apartments.

Following is an excerpt from Cuoco’s report:

New Haven Building Department photo“At the time of my visit, I noted significant deterioration of the first-floor framing and floor sheathing in the bathroom areas. We noted at least 5 locations of significant concern. In most of the areas, the sheathing was completely deteriorated. The floor joists were severely notched and/or unsupported and headers were cracked. The cast-iron waste pipes appear to be supporting most of the structural load. As such, they are “kinked” or buckling at the bell-joints. On further review of the two apartments, we noted floor deformations of approximately 6-inches in the vicinity of the bathrooms. I also noted significant deformation in other parts of the apartment. Based on the extent of deterioration and visible deformations, it is my opinion that the existing structure is the [sic] structurally unsound and not safe to occupy.”

After reading Cuoco’s report and seeing the building in person last night, Turcio sent a letter to Schemtisch and his lawyer on Thursday night demanding that the owner immediately hire a structural engineer to complete a structural analysis of the entire building and its fire escapes.

Thomas Breen photo“Due to structural deficiencies throughout the apartment building (41 units),” Turcio’s letter reads, “the dwelling units must be vacated immediately. Portions of the structure are in danger of immediate collapse.” The warning comes beneath bold, capitalized, underlined text in the letter that reads “IMMINENT DANGER.”

Turcio’s letter orders that the building must be immediately secured from all further entry, and that it is unlawful for anyone to enter the building except upon permission granted by the building official.

Photographs that Cuoco and Turcio’s building department colleagues took during yesterday’s inspection of 66 Norton St. reveal widespread rotting of the structural support beams in the basement.

“What this report tells you is that the plumbing is holding up the building,” Turcio said. “The plumbing has become structural because the structural members are deteriorating. This is not a good thing.”

Read Turcio’s letter to Schemitsch here. See all of the photographs taken by Cuoco and the building department during yesterday’s inspection here and here.

Mendy Katz told the Independent that the building, which is over a century old, had problems he was planning to redress, including flooding that in at least one case was caused by a negligent tenant.

“Our goal is to make sure that the building is 100 percent before anyone moves back in,” he said Thursday night.

Four of the condemned building’s tenants had their rents subsidized under the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development Section program, according to housing authority Executive Director Karen DuBois-Walton, whose agency is responsible for approving vouchers and inspections of the units. She said Friday she was in the process of pulling the inspection reports to review them.

Stuck

Meanwhile, the displaced tenants’ fate is in limbo.

“We’re going to do our best to advocate for them,” Rick Fontana, the city’s emergency management chief, said Friday afternoon. He said the city still needs to get more details on the conditions at 66 Norton St. to figure out how soon tenants can return at least to retrieve belongings. He said the responsibility lies with the building’s owner and management to find lodgings for tenants.

The tenants will most likely be in motels at least through the weekend, Fontana said. “We’ll have more information on Monday.”

“We’ll push. Our goal is going to force them to make sure they’re taking care of these people, If we have to step in, it may be a little bit different. They may want to handle this on their own.”

For right now, motels are “the safest option,” Fontana said.

“We’re going to figure out a solution Monday morning when the building department” provides the update, Mendy Katz said.

Over at the Three Judges, Shelly Sutherland and Dwain Perkins are technically staying in a non-smoking room. But the room next door allows smoking. That has been exacerbating her son’s asthma. She said he’s coughing and using his inhaler a lot.

They were initially told that they would stay only one night. But now it looks like the family will be there at least through the weekend.

Sutherland’s boys, who attend Lincoln Bassett and Augusta Troup schools, return to school Monday. She’s not sure how long this unexpected interruption of their family’s lives will last.

It’s already been a rough year for her youngest son. Their apartment at 66 Norton, she said, is infested with mold. And she’s constantly battling roaches — though unlike her neighbor Elsa Bradley, they didn’t have rats.

Both Sutherland and Bradley have lived in the Norton Street apartments nearly five years. The building has had problems for many years before the new owner took it over in 2015.

Sutherland said she wasn’t at all surprised that the place was in as bad shape as it has been found to be.

“There are a lot of problems,” she said. “The elevator is always broken down. They never fix anything in the apartment.”

Her most immediate concern was getting her family out of Three Judges and into a place where the kids might not accidentally stumble onto porn channels while looking for cartoons, or witness any of the prostitution and drug activity that has been known to occur in the vicinity.

But she’s weighing the financial fix it could put her family in to stay somewhere else. They’ve already paid their rent and have a fridge full of food at home. The unexpected cost of having to feed a family of five in restaurants is adding up. She’s also concerned about their safety.

The family’s first night at the hotel, Sutherland said the police had been called to intervene at another room where people were fighting.

Trying to keep the kids entertained on a cold rainy day in a place that is not filled with their toys and the snacks they like had them restless and Sutherland frustrated.

“Give us someplace with at least a kitchen so that we don’t have to spend all of our money on fast food,” she said.

Neighbor Elsa Bradley is staying over at the New Haven Inn. The accommodations there weren’t much better. Her son pressed the management at the motel Friday to move her to a room that was closer to the front desk so she would feel safer.

She, like Sutherland, would gladly pay to stay somewhere else, she said. But she also has paid her rent for an apartment she now can’t stay in and can’t afford to shell out money that might not be reimbursed. Both women work, Sutherland at West River Rehabilitation, Bradley at Arden House.

“They took us from one hole and put us in another hole,” Bradley said.

Victor Samson said he was coming back from the store and about to sit down to some dinner when he learned that his apartment was no longer inhabitable. Now, he’s stuck staying at the Three Judges.

Unlike Sutherland and Bradley, he has been hearing from someone calling to offer him different housing options. But they’re all properties that are very similar to the one he can’t live in now, he said.

And he does not want to move into another property owned by his current landlords or anyone with similar histories of not maintaining their buildings.

“I don’t want them to be able to force anything down my throat,” he said.

He said he would be happy to have money for a downpayment and rent for a new apartment, possibly in West Haven.

Paul Bass contributed reporting.

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posted by: watchfuleye on February 23, 2018  8:43pm

This is so sad and heartbreaking. The owner should be arrested, fine, should be order to give all the tenants rent money back, law suits and down payments for rent and other expenses reimbursements! this is so not right and disgusting to live in conditions like that. Taking advantage of people. Im disgusted! I hope everyone finds suitable housing.

posted by: Wilmeyer99 on February 24, 2018  7:14am

Devil’s advocate says sometimes landlords don’t fix things because the tenants they choose to rent to tend to be pigs and wreck stuff. That said, I have NO idea if that’s what happened in this case. Not only that, regardless if undesirable tenants you’re not allowed to kill them be allowing the floor to collapse on top of them. If owner has no money to fix stuff sell the building!

posted by: Wilmeyer99 on February 24, 2018  7:16am

If owner has no money to fix the building then sell it!

posted by: Brian L. Jenkins on February 24, 2018  4:39pm

This disaster shouldn’t just be blamed on the landlord.  Someone from Code Enforcement or LCI should too be held culpable for this mess.

These tenants should collectively file a class action lawsuit against whom ever is responsible after they get situated.

Never mind victim blaming as some heartless people enjoy doing.  This is about helping parents and children.  Period.

posted by: 2ndTimeAround on February 24, 2018  11:26pm

The landlords should be held accountable.
During the holiday season everyone seems to come together with a sense of community and a desire to make children happy.  I think we should keep that spirit. It would seem that the families and children might need clothes, school supplies, and food, and assistance to be able to get to school from their temporary residences. Perhaps donations can be organized for the families through the City?

posted by: Noteworthy on February 25, 2018  1:12pm

Fake Inspect This Notes:

1. This story and the accompanying pictures prove my point - the inspection process is broken, is poorly managed and is completely unaccountable. It doesn’t meet the goals of the original ordinance and in fact, doesn’t collect enough in fees to even pay for itself.

2. Like Church Street South - this property has been allowed to decay over many years until all of a sudden, a light bulb goes off and then it’s move the tenants - they are in extreme danger.

3. A routine inspection would have discovered rotting sub-floors around toilets and tubs. Simply stepping on it or putting one’s knee against the toilet would reveal this. Inspection of the tile around the same would too. Inspecting the ceilings of the apartments below, looking at sagging floors would reveal the same.

4. However, the condition of the support beams in the basement are in such bad shape, clearly an inspection before now, would have revealed this not to mention the kinking of caste iron pipes!

posted by: 1644 on February 25, 2018  4:04pm

The current owner purchased this building for $2.5 million in 2015, or over $60K/unit.  Prior to purchase, and certainly prior to mortgaging it (which he did), a building inspection should have been done.  The primary purpose of such inspections is precisely to reveal incipient problems such as these. I expect the owner is looking for that report right now.

    At this point, the building may be beyond economic repair.  Having used an LLC, the loan is essentially non-recourse, so the owner may default, with the building becoming a zombie, particularly if the mortgagee does not foreclose the owner’s rights.

posted by: Elmer Shady on February 26, 2018  2:24am

That rectangular shaped hole in the beam looks more like something that was ‘cut through’ to snake electrical lines or plumbing at one point, rather than something that occurred through a natural water leak….  and I doubt that it is really that ‘structural’.....

posted by: Morgan Barth on February 26, 2018  9:23am

The tenants are put up in Three Judges? 

Does anyone know if any city or state authority has the jurisdiction to force the landlord to provide better temporary quarters?

It seems to me that these folks should have the choice between a downtown hotel that has access to bus routes OR staying in an extended stay place like Village Suites (so you can cook your kids a meal or heat a bottle.) 

Like others I’m *shocked* that a building of this size doesn’t have regular enough or quality enough inspections to find these issues sooner.

MB

posted by: 1644 on February 26, 2018  11:57am

Morgan;  My take is this a a contract case.  The tenants contracted with the landlord to provide them with fit and habitable dwellings in a certain neighborhood and of a certain size with certain amenities at a certain price.  Since the landlord has breached his contract, he is liable for damages to tenants equal to what he had contracted to provide them.  To start, he must refund their rent and security deposits.  After that, if the tenants can only find a place with similar size and amenities for, say, $1100/month, whereas his lease was for $900/month, he would be liable for the difference of $200/month for the remainder of the term of his lease.  He would also be liable for moving expenses, and a reasonable hotel cost until they could find a similar place.  Im my mind, that hotel would have to have kitchen facilities or he would be liable for the difference between cooking for yourself and eating out.  A good proxy for the cost of eating out would be the federal per diem rates for New Haven, which are likely about $64/day. https://www.perdiem101.com/conus/2018/new-haven-connecticut. Were I their lawyer, that per diem is what I would ask for.

posted by: the1king on February 26, 2018  12:43pm

the new haven inn on pond lily also besides the 3 judges.  They have no kitchen, they were recently given a gift card so they could buy some food.  As I said previously my sister in-law and kids lived there.  We were able to make room in my house and got them out of the hotel and bring them to our house.  I am hoping that they pay for the move to the new apartment, but we will see.

posted by: JCFremont on February 26, 2018  1:41pm

I’d like some information on this whole Section 8 process. Like healthcare and college tuition government subsidies seem to rise all bills. I know about the slumlords living in mansions on the Florida coasts but the system also has the Catch 22 scenario when tenants hiding income, keeping a “roommate” off the lease or rejecting additional income knowing that money will cause a rent increase. The landlords I’m sure would be happy to get the majority of the rent through a government check than dealing with tenants. What are the tax rates on these buildings, what are they really worth for a low income section 8 apartment building worth, versus the amount some one would pay for the building with no restrictions on what a new owner could do with it. The city waves taxes to build market rate apartments what would be a real world assessment on buildings like 66 Norton?

posted by: 1644 on February 26, 2018  2:38pm

JC:  The current tax appraisal is $2.2 million, as of 2016 Grand List. with an assessment of $1.6 million.
http://gis.vgsi.com/newhavenct/Parcel.aspx?Pid=22137
Current taxes are $71K/year.

Realistically, I suspect the property has a negative market value.  I suspect heating pipes are lagging with asbestos, and soil drains are cast iron with lead seals at the joints, plus lead solder in the supply pipes.  I suspect some of the leaking may be that lateral soil drains have rusted through.  In any case, if the solid drains are buckling, as reported, the entire system will need to be re-plumbed. The wiring is also likely not to modern code, probably bi-mex, replacing knob & tube.  Some of the notched joists may have been notched in a previous re-wiring. 
  As for section 8, I believe the inspectors are concerned with superficial matters in the actual dwelling, not the structural integrity of the building it resides in.  The check-lists I have seen all deal primarily with superficial matters, not bones: do the windows work, is the paint peeling,  are radiators rusted, etc.?  Th rents available under section 8 are, until recently, metro region based.  Thus, section 8 will pay no more and no less for a two bedroom apartment in the Hill as for a two bedroom house in Madison.  There is a Pilot program in place to re-orient to zip code based rents, on the theory that it will help poor move to better neighborhoods.  It may also be the death knell for poor neighborhoods, where the above market rents paid by Section 8 help keep housing present in high operating cost areas.

Note: this is not a Project-based section 8 building like The Jungle.  The section 8 apartments are portable vouchers.