I-TEAM: Hartford City Councilman says Council is looking at harsher penalties for landlords who fail to fix housing violations
HARTFORD, CT (WFSB) - The Hartford City Council is reacting to our investigation into out-of-state landlords, and the unsafe conditions tenants say they’re living in because these landlords won’t fix anything.
The City of Hartford has now put aside one million dollars for a city repair fund to help tenants who say they’ve living in unsafe living conditions.
The fund would allow the city to make repairs themselves, then bill the landlord for the work.
One City Councilman tells me, the city can do more.
”NO ONE SHOULD LIVE LIKE THIS:”
“Those stories are horrible, they’re very heartbreaking,” says Hartford City Council Majority Leader TJ Clarke II is reacting to the horror stories tenants shared with the I-Team, and again with city officials last night.
In many cases, these tenants don’t know their landlords, who live out of state.
“I am very much frustrated with the fact that a lot of these landlords are absentee, particularly these larger apartment units,” says Councilman Clarke.
He says the City Council is discussing new ways to increase penalties on those landlords who refuse to fix their properties, including reworking their tax break agreements with the city and having the federal government consider revoking their Section 8 voucher statuses’.
The I-Team sat down with Judith Rothschild, Director of Housing Code Enforcement and Blight Remediation to ask about current penalties.
“I know enforcement can make a difference in the lives of people if it’s done properly, if people are dedicated to it,” says Rothschild. She says that’s why she joined the city, coming over from the Chief States’ Attorney’s Office, where she was head prosecutor. She prosecuted health and safety codes as well as landlord - tenant criminal disputes.
HOW THE CODE ENFORCEMENT PROCESS WORKS:
When tenants make a complaint to the city, the city sends an inspector out. If the inspector finds something, the landlord is given a notice of violation and they have between 21-60 days to correct the problem, 5 days if it’s a health and safety issue.
We asked Rothschild if those timelines are always followed.
“Well, it should be,” she said.
Rothschild says starting in the new year, her office will have 13 inspectors.
There were 5 when she started in May 2021.
She says a re-inspection date should be set with the tenant at the original inspection.
Many tenants have told the city they feel the code enforcement process takes too long, and inspectors close their cases before the landlord actually fixes the problem.
“Now what often happens is, they’ll go out, the process has started, the correction of the violation may have started but isn’t complete, and in that case, we can give reasonable extensions for the owner to finish up,” says Rothschild. “We do prefer, certainly compliance with cooperative effort by the owner, we do need that, and we also need tenant cooperation to gain that. The owner, who gets orders, needs to be able to get into the property to do repairs that are required of them. Tenants are in charge of their property access, and they need to work with us and the owner to get those violations corrected.”
Now if the landlord doesn’t fix the violation in time, he receives a citation and can be fined, up to $7500 per violation.
Get enough fines, and the city can lay a lien on the property.
The city has filed liens against 51 property owners since September 2020, totaling more than $524,000. A little more than $25,000 has been paid off.
“Generally, it doesn’t get paid until the owner sells the property,” says Rothschild. “The only other way to enforce it, if the liens are high enough, is a foreclosure option by the city.”
Which could hurt tenants unnecessarily, says Rothschild.
Landlords could also face criminal prosecution. Since March 2022, there have been 6 cases referred to the State’s Attorney’s Office.
OTHER OPTIONS FOR TENANTS:
Tenants do have another option: withholding their rent. But they must first file a complaint with the court before doing so.
“Where the tenant brings an action to the court saying my landlord has failed to comply to their obligation by not fixing these things and bring the rent and put it in escrow with the housing court session and have the judge decide, after a hearing, whether the landlord is meeting their obligations or the tenant is entitled to withhold their rent and when it is dispersed,” says Rothschild.
Recently, one of the landlords that tenants say they experienced problems with for years, sold his properties to a new landlord.
While the city says that the new landlord is working to improve all the properties; tenants say he’s only fixing up the apartments to raise the rent.
They feel they’re being pushed out.
“They shouldn’t be at risk, they should have the work done,” said Rothschild. “I do know there are sometimes violations that are so extensive, that the remediation requires no occupancy during the correction. There is a protection for the tenant in the law that if a landlord needs to do a correction let that and the unit is inhabitable, the landlord is responsible for putting them up somewhere while they do the work. The landlord can also offer, in lieu of me doing this work and putting you out, I’m offering you some money to voluntarily leave this residence and go somewhere else. That’s also lawful. But the tenant doesn’t have to take it. If the tenant wishes to stay and have the work done as they’re entitled to, they have every right to that.”
Councilman Clarke says he feels that’s a loophole city officials need to close. “How you do business in other states and other cities outside of CT, is not what Hartford is expecting of you,” says Councilman Clarke.
We asked Councilman Clarke if the City Council will consider fining property management companies. He says right now, the city is restricted from doing so by ordinance. He intends to work the state’s Hartford lawmakers to find a solution.
“A lot of people really don’t understand that sometimes municipalities cannot take aggressive actions because of what state allows municipalities to do.
Hopefully pass a state bill,” says Councilman Clarke.
He’d also like to know what other city officials in CT are dealing with. “For all we know there could be a network of these property groups across the state of CT doing the same thing as Hartford,” says Clarke.
RENTAL LICENSING PROGRAM:
The city is also right now going through the process of licensing all rental properties, with the rental licensing program, a process that will require each property go through a rigorous inspection process.
“Hartford is the first municipality to roll out a program that is proactive in enforcement rather than reactive,” says Rothschild. “We’re going out to properties one by one and we are inspecting them, not just for housing code conditions, which is also part of the program, but fire safety, building safety, zoning compliance and lead safety.”
If a property get 4 or more complaints within a certain time frame, the property has to go through the process again. If violations aren’t fixed in time, a landlord’s’ license could be in jeopardy.
It was created in 2019, and supposed to start in early 2021. But the program has been slow to get started, after some city ordinances had to be re-worded when it came to lead inspections.
“At this point, 423 applications in process. 12 issued, the rest in process. Being reviewed, application is checking for completion. Then inspections,” says Rothschild.
She says they recently added two new members to that team to speed up the process.
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