Pandemic. People out of work. Businesses shut down. It seems like a bad time for a rent hike.

So some residents of town Housing Authority apartments were pretty upset to receive letters announcing that they could expect rent increases of up to $50 a month.

“You don’t raise the rent during a pandemic,” said Betty Castillo. “Obviously, in my opinion, because a lot of people around here are not working, because you’re not supposed to go out.

“I actually thought it was a notice saying we could pay our rent next month, because of the pandemic,” she added.

“It seems nervy to be sending a rent increase notice out right now,” said Darlene Vandam.

“I had an increase last July,” she said. “Rent is $1,350 a month, so it’ll go up to $1,400.”

She said her apartment was “a really small two-bedroom.”

“In the middle of this whole crisis — it’s absurd,” said another neighbor who declined to give her name. “How do you come up with that figure? I think it’s disgraceful that they’re doing this to us at this time, when people are having a hard time paying their bills. What’s the formula? How do they come up with $50 on your rent?”

“I live in The Meadows, supposedly everybody is going up,” said Castillo.

She said she has had a two-bedroom unit there for 12 years. The Meadows units are visible off Prospect Ridge, sharing a site with the big old stone “novitiate” building that houses congregate units, and was once the home of the Holy Ghost Fathers.

Castillo said her rent is $1,195 a month without the increase.

“Now it’s going up $50 more,” she said.

Notification

“After careful consideration and analysis the Ridgefield Housing Authority has decided to to propose a $50 rent increase in both General Apartment Homes and Meadows Townhomes,” said the letter some tenants received. As with any increase, this was a difficult and necessary decision. The increase will allow us to cover operating cost increases, utilities, insurance and to provide the cash needed to perform required repairs and maintenance to the property.

“Your proposed rent increase will be $50 effective July 1, 2020, as applicable based on current rents.”

It went on to invite residents to a meeting with a question and answer period.

Before pandemic

Frank Coyle, chairman of the Ridgefield Housing Authority (RHA), said the rent increases had been under consideration since before the COVID-19 situation, and weren’t scheduled to take effect until July 1.

He added that the Housing Authority would be understanding of tenants who have reduced income as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Coyle also told The Ridgefield Press that $50 was the maximum increase anyone was getting, and many tenants are scheduled to see smaller rent hikes.

The Housing Authority has 152 housing units — most but not all of it targeted to senior citizens. There are two sites: Ballard Green “housing for the elderly” behind the park, and on Prospect Ridge near Halpin Lane.

The Prospect Ridge site includes the “congregate” or assisted living units in the former novitiate building, as well as The Meadows, which has been described as “workforce housing” not targeted at elderly residents. There are also 38 “general units” found on both sites.

The increases

Coyle offered the following breakdown of the planned rent increases:

In Ballard Green, with 60 units, rents range from $460 to $491, and increases would be 3 percent, amounting to $14 or $15 a month. “Approximately 40 units will have increases covered by state subsidies,” Coyle said.

Congregate Housing has 34 units. Rent is $690 and increasing 3 percent, by $21 a month. Residents also pay for services — including room cleaning and daily lunch — and this $853 monthly charge is also expected to rise by 3 percent or $26 a month. “Almost all increases covered by state subsidies,” Coyle said — although in two or three instances this may not be the case, he added.

The Meadows has 20 units, with rents ranging from $1,131 to $1,676, and most rents between $1,131 and $1,291, according to Coyle. The increases are planned at 3 to 4 percent for five residents — “that’s the $50,” he said — and “approximately 15 tenants” will see ”no increase,” according to Coyle.

In the 38 “general units” found at both Ballard Green and at Prospect Ridge, rents run from $1,000 to $1,300 — a few are above that — and increases of 5 percent or $50 are planned for 28 residents, while approximately 10 would see no increase.

“The summary of the proposed increases, 152 units: 25 with no increase; 75 increases covered by state subsidies; 52 with 3 to 5 percent increases,” Coyle said.

Varied rents

Still, the mix and match pattern of rents and increases is among the issues that puzzle and annoy tenants.

“Why isn’t everyone’s rent all the same?” asked Darlene Vandam. “Why is everyone’s rent different?”

It’s not because the Housing Authority wants to be unfair, according to Coyle.

“The reasons some people pay a lot less is they’re longer term residents. It goes back literally seven or eight years. Or longer,” he said.

The rents charged are regulated by the state at Ballard Green and the congregate housing, and the Housing Authority went a long time without raising rents much, Coyle said.

When the Housing Authority — whose members are appointed by the Board of Selectmen — determined that it was necessary to begin increasing rents, they found some units were rented at the “allowable maximum” and others were rented for considerably less. They’ve been endeavoring to even things out ever since — but with increases that are gradual.

“Ever since, anytime anyone new comes in, they are rented at the maximum or the limit,” Coyle said. “However, we have had a great many residents that were hundreds of dollars below the allowable limit.”

Coyle said the Housing Authority has tried to limit the increases.

“For 7 or 8 years we have had increases of 2 to 3 percent at Ballard Green and Congregate and a maximum of $50 a month at General and Meadows,” he said. “Longer term residents at General and Meadows were significantly below the allowable state limits at those properties. The board adopted the $50 limit as opposed to much larger increases to the allowable limit because of the impact on residents.”

Housing Authority properties are regulated by the state, and residents have to meet income guidelines to get into the buildings.

“You have to be eligible. Ballard Green and Congregate, you have to be pretty low (income) at both of those. At Meadows and General ... generally speaking they’re 60 to 70 percent of the area median income in Danbury.”

And the maximum rents are 30 percent of that, reflecting the state’s belief people should not have to pay more than 30 percent of their income to housing costs.

Final decision coming

Coyle said discussions were continuing and a final decision the increases hadn’t been made by the Housing Authority— although he seemed to expect the increases will be adopted.

“The current situation was and is being assessed by the board. Resident comments are being received by phone meetings and in writing,” Coyle said. “This will be taken up May 20, 7 p.m.

“We’ve talked about it the last 3 or 4 meetings, going back to January,” he said. “We probably, in my opinion, would be more likely to work on what we can do for the people who, their income is impacted by the virus.

“The initial discussions obviously took place before the virus, and what’s changed is that we have instituted a policy that if someone’s income has been affected by the situation: talk to the office and work out a different plan.”

In the end, he offered a simple explanation for the rent hikes.

“We’re doing the increases because we need the money,” Coyle said.

“I anticipated a lot of negative comments. I certainly don’t like doing this at this point — I don’t ever like doing it. It’s just a question of keeping the place afloat for now and in the future,” he said.

“Our costs are going up, plus we have these capital needs hanging over our heads.”

Repairs

The Housing Authority has been working to solidify its finances and be better prepared to handle problems, according to Coyle.

“Our financial situation has improved dramatically in the last 10 years . We are operating positively and putting funds aside for future capital needs,” he said.

“One capital example would be the elevator modernization at Congregate, in the CNA for $100,000, has become an immediate issue and will cost $200-300,000. Other examples include roofs, siding, appliances, etc.”

The tenants did have some complaints about maintenance.

“It’s nice, its quiet, but I think they could take care of it better than they do,” said Vandam.

“I’ve had a leak since December,” said Castillo. “What usually happens when you have anything done, which is my experience, they send you a bill even though the super comes and he’s on salary here — they send you a bill for parts and his labor.”

Coyle said the Housing Authority was working long term to improve its position for fincancing repairs.

“We’ve gotten to a much better place in the last 8 years, but we’re not there,” he said.

He pointed again to repairs stemming from a two-week elevator breakdown last October in the congregate housing building as an example of the capital needs the Housing Authority has to be prepared to handle. The elevator was returned to operation, but needs a full overhaul.

“If we didn’t have the cash to do a $200,000-plus elevator modernization, that would be a problem,” Coyle said.

And, costly as it is, it has to be done.

“The average age in Congregate is 88,” he said, “those people can’t go up and down the stairs forever.”

“I guess the main thing I’d say is we don’t pay dividends to anyone. We don’t take money ourselves,” Coyle said. “Our only purpose is to provide the best possible housing for the current and future residents, that includes being economically viable for the future.”