Implementation of a 2022 state law that required 27 additional towns in Connecticut to create fair rent commissions is in various stages across the state, leaving some tenants with uneven access to an avenue to protest rent increases.
The 2022 legislation required towns with 25,000 or more residents to adopt ordinances creating fair rent commissions by July 1, 2023. A handful of towns have missed the deadline, some have passed the ordinance but the commissions haven’t met yet, and others have commissions that meet regularly.
Before the law passed, 25 towns had commissions.
Fair rent commissions are municipal boards that hear resident complaints about rent increases and other issues. They have the power to conduct investigations, issue subpoenas and issue orders regarding landlord-tenant issues.
“This is a time in which rents are rapidly escalating everywhere in the state and that there really is no vehicle other than fair rent commissions for tenants to be able to raise fairness issues,” said Rafie Podolsky, a housing attorney at Connecticut Legal Services. Podolsky is one of the attorneys offering training across the state to new fair rent commissioners and town staff members.
Officials and experts said the commissions are getting more attention because of high rents and a lack of other available housing. The growing tenant union movement in Connecticut has also drawn more attention to the issue, as renters organize and spread the word about the commissions.
Overall, Podolsky said, most towns have been willing to pass ordinances. Many that passed ordinances didn’t send them to the Department of Housing, so they’re not included in the state’s online information, he said.
“The resistance has been relatively small, and I think that underlines the fact that people in the towns recognize the need,” Podolsky said.
What towns are doing
Many are in the early stages of recruiting commission members or just had meetings to appoint them. Middletown and Cheshire, for example, had meetings to appoint members in early September. Waterbury is among those that already have commissioners appointed.
Middletown passed its ordinance in June and appointed members in early September. Rep. Quentin “Q” Williams, a resident of Middletown, had proposed the legislation in 2022 and said in an interview with the Middletown Press that he wanted the town to be one of the first to get started with the commission. Williams died in a car crash in January.
Hamden passed a new ordinance for the fair rent commission in January. The commission created under the former ordinance hadn’t met for years before it reconvened last fall.
But still, tenants complained at a recent meeting that their landlords weren’t following the commission’s orders. Commissioners said that would need to be reported to the town so action could be taken.
Other towns missed the July 1 deadline to adopt an ordinance. Greenwich, Podolsky said, hit a hurdle because Greenwich’s Representative Town Meeting hasn’t passed the ordinance, even though the board of selectmen has passed it.
Greenwich’s RTM has the fair rent commission ordinance on its agenda for Sept. 18.
Wallingford’s town council didn’t pass an ordinance to create a fair rent commission when it came before the council in June. It was a meeting with low attendance and needed one additional vote to pass. It will go back to committee and likely come up to the full council again in the fall, said Vinny Cervoni, chairman for the town council.
Rep. Craig Fishbein, one of the council members, voted against creation of the ordinance. He said he’d since submitted suggestions, and if they’re implemented, he said, he would likely vote yes.
“I’m concerned about the monster that we make, or the state makes us make,” Fishbein, R-Wallingford, said in a meeting.
He said he’d like tenants in government housing to be able to submit complaints and language to specify what the commission should do if there were an issue with concurrent jurisdiction with housing court regarding apartment conditions.
If such changes are implemented, Fishbein said, he’d vote for the ordinance.
Tenant experience with fair rent commissions varies widely from town to town, said Luke Melonakos-Harrison, an organizer and vice president of the Connecticut Tenants Union.
In addition to the various stages of implementation across the state, there are also significant differences in how the commissions operate from town to town, Melonakos-Harrison added.
Some are more willing to consider complaints about housing conditions than others, he said. And each has different strategies for running meetings, such as how much time they give people to speak about their case.
“It really depends on how a given municipality is running it,” he said.
Kelly DeMatteo, president of the Connecticut Apartment Association and vice president of property management at Trio Properties, said that she’s only been before a fair rent commission a couple of times but that the process was confusing.
“I’ve had the experience where they didn’t know what they were supposed to do,” DeMatteo said. “And they were asking me, which was a unique situation.”
She added that she’s also concerned that statutory guidelines aren’t clear enough to instruct the commissions and that they may not be taking the market and real costs of being a landlord into account.
“I do think it rolled out pretty quickly, and I think that the ground rules need to be set,” DeMatteo said. “I think that we’re here and willing to come to the table to offer suggestions in terms of what that would look like.”
Kevin Santini, owner and property manager of the Santini Villa Apartments and The Grand Lofts and an Apartment Association member, is on the fair rent commission for Vernon. He said he’s concerned about property rights issues and that the government will tell people how much to charge for their property. He said the market pricing should be one of the main considerations when determining if rent is fair.
“Looking at it from a landlord’s standpoint, I might be the landlord’s enemy in some of these cases,” Santini said. “On one hand, I’m very much a believer in private property rights, but I’m also a believer of doing your job and doing it well.”
While the law doesn’t include the specific details of how meetings ought to be run, it does give 13 factors commissioners should use to determine if a rent increase is fair. These include rents in other areas, the sanitary conditions of the house, number of bathrooms and bedrooms, services offered, whether repairs are made, the amount of taxes, whether the accommodations are in compliance with town and state code, and damages done to the property by the tenant, among other factors.
Landlords and commission members expressed concerns that the fair rent commissions would be primarily dealing with issues related to conditions. Sarah White, a Connecticut Fair Housing Center attorney who is working with Podolsky to offer training, said it’s a common misconception that commissions can’t address habitability issues.
White said commissions can order a health inspection from local inspectors, order certain repairs or lower rents if the repairs aren’t made. But many town officials said if the complaint is solely about the conditions and doesn’t concern rent increases, they’ll often try to mediate it or direct complainants to local code enforcement.
Wildaliz Bermudez, New Haven’s fair rent commission executive director, said that the commission tries to focus on cases of excessive rent increases, but that doesn’t preclude them from addressing conditions in some cases.
“What happens sometimes is we receive cases where it’s a combination of an excessive rental charge and there have been deferred repairs that cause unsafe, unhealthy housing conditions,” Bermudez said.
Connecticut’s commissions used to be highly organized as a group. They’d communicate often and had a statewide network, Podolsky said. He’s hopeful as more form, they’ll build that network back up.
“We are starting from scratch in many ways,” White said.
As rents rose during the early parts of the pandemic, some towns strengthened their existing fair rent commissions.
West Hartford had an ordinance for a commission, but it hadn’t met for many years. Experts said this was the case for many commissions because rents flattened in the state during the housing crisis.
“We knew and anticipated that with COVID and coming out of COVID, that there would be increased rent,” West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor said.
Some of the more successful commissions in Connecticut, according to housing attorneys, often have a city staff member who works for the commission rather than relying solely on the volunteer commission members.
In Stamford, that’s the job of the Social Services Department.
Sharona Cowan, social services director, said she tries to mediate the cases before they go before the full commission and is often successful. She said the commission has seen more cases in recent years. It existed well before the 2022 legislation and didn’t stop meeting occasionally when rents flattened.
“I’ve spoken to a few other towns and told them if you have an opportunity to get staffing, please do,” Cowan said. “You may be more overwhelmed than you realize — you have to really listen, gather documents, negotiate and mediate back and forth. If you’ve gotten a couple of those running at the same time, you’re busy.”
New Haven’s Bermudez runs a small office entirely devoted to fair rent complaints. From 2015 to about a year and a half ago, the commission had about 52 complaints on average per year, she said.
Since Bermudez came into her position, it’s been closer to 300. She’s been working to mediate cases and ensure that the city’s residents know about the commission.
Bermudez believes that since COVID-era renter protections expired, more people who may be facing eviction are looking for help. She said many are facing rent increases of up to 75%.
“Meeting people where they’re at is very important,” she said. “Being proactive about it is very important in the same way that the tenant union organizers are going out and talking to people.”
Podolsky said that while the commissions are a good tool, they aren’t the full solution to tackling excessive rents.
Melonakos-Harrison pointed to what tenant union organizers have said is a need for annual rent caps, which was proposed during the last legislative session but didn’t pass out of the committee. The Apartment Association’s Santini said the market will correct itself if more housing is built.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Podolsky said. “Fair rent commissions are not magical solutions for rapidly rising rents. They’re a mechanism to give people opportunity, and hopefully they’ll give people successes but they’re not going to address the fact that rents are rapidly rising.”