West River Sweep Reveals Landlord Lapses

Emily Hays PhotoRafael Ramos saw the pile of cardboard boxes and trash bags first. After talking to a tenant, he learned the owner doesn’t live in the purple house on George Street — and lacks the license required to rent it out.

Ramos, a deputy director for the city’s Livable City Initiative (LCI) department, came across the violation Thursday in the course of a sweep of the West River neighborhood along with inspectors from other city departments.

Ramos’s goal in addressing the discovery on George Street — like the goal of the sweep itself — was not to make anyone homeless. It was to prevent a safety problem before it happens.

“Trash is always an indication of other things,” said Ramos.

The city sends out department heads on these sweeps periodically to walk New Haven’s neighborhoods, identify safety problems and let neighbors know whom to contact to solve them. Previous sweeps have covered Cedar Hill, the Hill, the Annex, Fair Haven and Newhallville.

West River was the focus on Thursday morning. The dozen or so representatives from city departments split into groups, armed with detailed maps of their assigned blocks. Ramos’ group started at the corner of Derby and Winthrop avenues.

Ramos was the first to notice the purple house on George Street. He peeled off to take a closer look at what the pile of trash outside might indicate, followed by Mayor Justin Elicker and new city code inspector Nick Caprio.

Sure enough, the railing to the steps was broken. The handrail would not hold any weight. The porch was splintering. These were obvious health and safety hazards, Ramos said.

Renter Jeffrey O’Bryan (pictured) answered the door to Elicker’s knock. Elicker introduced the group and encouraged O’Bryan to get the Covid-19 vaccine.

Ramos asked for more details about the home. Who owns the property? Are there working smoke detectors? Are there any rodents or roaches? Do any children live there?

O’Bryan reported that the smoke detectors worked and that there were no insect or rodent problems. The owner’s number changes all the time, he said, but the owner would be by to collect rent around 7 p.m. The family on the second floor has children.

As the group thanked O’Bryan and walked away, Caprio looked up the property in city records. The property is listed as owner-occupied. The owner had not applied for a residential rental business license. The city can fine property owners for failing to get properly licensed.

“The owner clearly doesn’t live here,” Elicker commented.

LCI created a tiered rental licensing system in 2019. The number of code violations per house gets memorialized in the type of license, so properties with histories of violations get checked up on more frequently.

Ramos’ group included others with vivid stories about every house the group passed. West River Alder Tyisha Walker-Myers, who serves as president of the Board of Alders, knew the details of development proposals for each property. She had already spoken with her landlord about bulk trash on one of his other properties.

And when two young women came up, distressed by a clash of personalities at the rooming house where they live, Walker-Myers gave them her cell phone number. She offered to help them talk through the issue with their case manager.

Otherwise, the walk was sunny and quiet. The group walked in huddles of three or four, joking and exchanging information on the houses. Caprio took notes on the homes with code violations so he could send out letters later.

Ramos passed a cross street with Parmelee Avenue and sighed that it was a nice, clean block with few troubles. A modern house built by the Yale School of Architecture anchored the corner.

Just beyond was another home with safety problems. The fence was collapsing into the sidewalk.

An abandoned car in the backyard was a potential home for mice. The pile of branches and old toys looked like it might have already become a den for some animal.

Another home had a collapsing chimney, a pile of trash and a collapsing set of stairs. Ramos worried that bricks might be falling through the chimney at this point.

LCI neighborhood specialist Tracy Claxton (pictured above) called out to Ramos about the owner of the home, whom she knows by name. Illness had affected his ability to take care of his property. As a senior, the man might be eligible for help fixing his chimney and steps, Ramos said. Claxton had tried that already, but LCI could try again.

“Maybe he will change his mind. A lot of people don’t want help,” she said.

The final stop that drew Ramos’ eye was another house with trash out front.

Corey Rogers, an injured football player at the Engineering and Science University Magnet School, stuck his head over the porch.

Rogers told Ramos that there was a working smoke detector. He didn’t know what a carbon monoxide alarm looked like, though.

Ramos held up his hands to show a rectangle about eight inches wide. Rogers did think the house had one of those. The renter of the apartment next to Rogers confirmed this information.

“That means we’ve been in there in the last two years for something, probably for the license,” Ramos said.

As Ramos and Caprio walked away, Caprio checked the rental business license. It had just expired at the end of January. That was another chance to talk with the owner and make sure everyone was living in safe conditions.

Tags: neighborhood sweeps, Rafael Ramos, Tracy Claxton, Justin Elicker, Tyisha Walker-Myers

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posted by: Heather C. on March 12, 2021  2:17pm

I have an elderly relative who owned a 2 family house in the area. LCI presented them a checklist of items that needed fixing or they would be fined.
1. Stone wall next to driveway crumbling…(tenants kept hitting it with their car.)
2. Mice, bedbugs and roaches infestation that once the landlord was informed were there took 3-4 calls to a pest control company to get rid of…
(Tenants brought in furniture that they found on the street, and tenants didn’t notify landlord about the infestation, tenants piles of garbage and filthy stove and fridge were so disgusting after they moved out that they had to be replaced because of the pest damages, and a dumpster rented to remove their trash, and a cleaning person hired to clean and sanitize everything, and in the other unit several tenants moved out due to the pest issues created by the first tenant.)
3. Yard not weeded properly…
(Landlord was suffering a medical crisis and temporarily wasn’t able to get over to the property as regularly as they normally would while they received treatment.)
4. Leaking plumbing which wound up costing thousands of dollars in water bills and repairs…
(Which the tenants never informed the landlord was leaking.)
The landlord was charging less than market rate rents, due to wanting to help out the low income tenants, was extremely patient and understanding of any issues the tenants had, and responded immediately to any issues brought to their attention.
Result?
Landlord paid thousands of dollars out of their own pocket to fix the property issues, then sold their property to a landlord who owned multiple multi family properties around the city, who was going to charge market rates and change the building to a legal 3 family so they could make more money.
Sometimes it’s not the landlord that is bad, it is the tenants that cause all the issues, and then the landlord is held legally and financially responsible for the bad behavior of the tenant.

Amelia J. Bell

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