I-Team: RENTERS’ RIGHTS: Got a rent increase? You can go to your local Fair Rent Commission
HARTFORD, Conn. (WFSB) - For the last 3 and a half years, Melva Plummer has lived in her Hamden apartment.
She’s dealt with rent increases before, just not like the one presented to her in September.
Plummer’s rent would be increasing by 35%. “From 2,000 to 2,700 dollars for rent,” says Plummer.
”We know that the market price went up and the rent. We know we got to pay more. But my god, so much more,” says Plummer.
She filed a complaint with the Hamden Fair Rent Commission.
The commission decided, instead of paying $2700, Hammer will now pay $2,250. Her landlord is appealing the decision.
“The Fair Rent Commission is here to help us people and they’re doing a marvelous job,” says Hammer.
HOW DO FAIR RENT COMMISSIONS WORK?
In 2022, the CT legislature said every city and town with a population greater than 25,000 must create a Fair Rent Commission ordinance by mid 2023.
25 CT towns and cities already have commissions, around 27 others meeting the criteria currently do not. (SEE BELOW FOR A LIST OF TOWNS AND CITIES WHO DO).
“As soon as a tenant receives a proposed rental increase, they should contact us immediately,” says Wildaliz Bermudez. (You can file a complaint here: https://www.newhavenct.gov/government/departments-divisions/fair-rent-commission/filing-a-complaint).
Wildaliz Bermudez is the Executive Director of the New Haven Fair Rent Commission.
She says they were created to help control and eliminate excessive rental charges, and act as middlemen between landlords and tenants.
”For example, if the landlord is claiming that certain bills have gone up, certain expenses, we request that information,” says Bermudez. The Commission investigates tenant complaints submitted either in person or online, and can negotiate rent on behalf of tenants.
Most municipalities try to informally mediate between the landlord and tenant. Many complaints end in an agreement, like a smaller rent increase or a phase-in over time.
“We look at things like, how many units, how many bedrooms are within that particular unit, how many bathrooms, what’s the square footage of the property,” says Bermudez. “Are there any problems with unsafe and unhealthy housing conditions within that particular unit? How often has the rent been increased, for how much?”
While New Haven’s Commission investigates, the tenant’s rent stays the same until a decision is reached.
The decision is legally binding for one year.
They can also prevent a landlord from raising the rent, or suspend rent payments, until housing conditions are improved, if the housing in question fails to meet local or state health and safety requirements. Commissions work alongside code enforcement in many cases.
If the commission determines, after holding a hearing, that a landlord has retaliated in any way against a tenant who has complained to it, the commission can order the landlord to cease the retaliation.
SEEING MORE CASES:
In New Haven, their cases have tripled in the past year.
“The increases that we’re seeing have been upwards of anywhere from 15% increase, all the way to 75%,” says Bermudez.
It’s the same in Hartford.
In 2021, the Fair Rent Commission there received 22 complaints.
In 2023, they’ve more than quadrupled to 104 complaints.
They have to meet twice a month now to investigate complaints in a timely manner, most commissions meet only once a month.
In Hamden, the Commission met in September 2022 after a four-year hiatus.
They’ve received 49 complaints so far.
At least 4 of their decisions are being appealed by the landlord.
IF THERE’S NO COMMISSION:
If your city or town doesn’t have a commission:
Experts suggest doing your own research.
Price out comparable apartments in your town and bring that information to your landlord to negotiate.
As for Plummer’s rent, a lawyer representing her landlord, Seramonte Estates, says Plummer had originally agreed to an increase of $2500, but the Fair Rent Commission went lower. They are appealing the commission’s decision.
Their attorney, Kevin McEleney, says tenants can expect rent increases because rents were “historically below market” when they purchased the apartments and landlords are facing more expenses.
Plummer doesn’t regret asking for help.
”I hope other people like me know about them, so they don’t have to run,” says Plummer.
WHAT DO LANDLORDS THINK?
Municipalities have flexibility to decide the make-up of the commission (like the number of commissioners; the mixture of landlords, tenants, and homeowners; the appointment process; and the frequency of meetings).
Bob DeCosmo, of the CT Property Owners Alliance, says the Fair Rent Commission law that went into effect, should have had more guidance.
For example, New Haven has just 1 landlord rep (Doug Losty) on their commission. DeCosmo says commissions should have an equal number of tenants and landlords.
He says the Property Owners Alliance did submit testimony this session that we would like to see each commission “balanced.”
Fair Rent Commissions were created to restrict rental charges in residential housing that are “so excessive as to be harsh and unconscionable.”
“Harsh and unconscionable. Definite that in terms of a dollar amount,” says DeCosmo.
They also think there should be more guidance on monetary value, perhaps tied to the HUD Fair Market Rents.
“There should have been a tie in to let’s say, the HUD fair market rent to determine if these rent increases are excessive,” says DeCosmo.
WHICH TOWNS AND CITIES HAVE COMMISSIONS?
Twenty-five Connecticut towns already have fair rent commission ordinances.
Those include: Hartford, New Haven, Stamford, Bridgeport, Norwalk, Danbury, New Britain, Manchester, Groton, Enfield Suburbs, West Hartford, Hamden, Glastonbury, Newington, West Haven, Windsor, Wethersfield, Farmington, Simsbury, Rocky Hill, Bloomfield, Colchester, Clinton, Westbrook, Killingworth.
The towns that still need to create fair rent commissions are: Waterbury, Wallingford, Branford, Greenwich, Southington, New Milford, Fairfield, Shelton, East Haven, Meriden, Norwich, New London, Bristol, Trumbull, Newtown, Stratford, Torrington, Westport, Milford, Naugatuck, So. Windsor, East Hartford, Vernon, Mansfield, Middletown, Cheshire, Ridgefield.
RESOURCES FOR TENANTS AND LANDLORDS:
Bermudez says Fair Rent Commissions can also point you to free programs that are available for tenants and landlords. She says always ask about your city, town or state office - what is available? What is free?
For example, in New Haven, there’s the “I am Home” program, where “if you’re a tenant and you’re trying to move to a new apartment, you can receive up to $5,000 from the city for your first month’s security deposit as well as first month’s rent, as well as back pay with any utility bills that you owe.”
The “I am Home” program applies to middle income families as well.
You can learn more here: https://www.newhavenct.gov/Home/Components/News/News/159/144
For landlords, there’s also the Healthy Homes state program and one in New Haven.
“The city actually has funding available for you up to $10,000 should you qualify and make renovations that are within your apartment unit for free,” says Bermudez. Renovations like fixing broken windows, eliminating mold, lead and asbestos.
Information on that program is here: https://portal.ct.gov/doh
This is also a similar program through EnergizeCT.com, “where you can get your entire building, if you’re landlord, with free new weatherized windows,” says Bermudez. She found many rent increases are requested because of the expense of renovations.
And if there is one tenant below the median income in your household, then you may qualify, or potentially qualify for different programs: https://portal.ct.gov/doh
Find Financial Assistance for Housing Costs in CT: https://legalfaq.org/getHelp/ct#financialAssistance
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