Opinion: Tenant unions key for housing justice

Hamden Memorial Town Hall June 2019

Hamden Memorial Town Hall June 2019

Clare Dignan / Hearst Connecticut Media

On the evening of Tuesday, June 21, tenants of Seramonte Estates convened with the Hamden City Council for a pivotal hearing, where they secured a historic win in the struggle for housing justice.

These Seramonte residents, members and leaders of Connecticut’s largest tenant union to date, were there to build on the momentum that their efforts had already generated. Thanks in no small part to the Seramonte Tenants Union, Hamden has decided to establish a Fair Rent Commission for the first time in years, with the power to protect renters from undue rent hikes and landlord negligence. This is a vital win for tenants in the midst of the most domineering housing market in recent memory, and a testament to the momentum which the STU has built since going public on May 2, already boasting a membership of over 120 at the time.

The union remains committed to the fight for livable conditions, and the newly reinstated FRC will be an asset to those efforts. Since Connecticut law prohibits communities from instituting rent control, and thereby enables landlords to charge exorbitant rates at will, volunteer FRC boards are the only means of legal recourse available to tenants in the state. FRCs have the power to freeze or even abate excessive rents in response to grievances about substandard management, excessive rent increases, code violations and more. Further, these commissions have the ability to investigate reports of landlord retaliation, and to provide specific protection to the elderly and disabled in accordance with the good cause eviction law.

While far from a perfect solution to the housing crisis currently engulfing the state and nation, the immediate protections introduced by FRCs will enable tenant unions to more effectively organize and build towards other necessary goals, with less risk of unobstructed reprisals from landlords.

The experience of Seramonte’s residents highlights how important the FRC will be to this endeavor, particularly in light of the second provision adopted in the hearing: a provision that formally recognizes the STU, and which enables tenant unions to submit collective complaints to the commission on a property-wide level. Equipped with this provision, the FRC will supplement the pressure already mounted by the union, bolstering it with the backing of a sanctioned government body capable of addressing maltreatment on a systemic level. The ability for union representatives to submit shared complaints, with augmented impact on account of their collective character, will prove essential in securing a just outcome against a strong opponent.

And the Seramonte Union’s opposition is certainly strong. Northpoint Management, the Hamden property’s corporate landlord, is owned by Zvi “Harry” Horowitz: a well-funded and long-established real estate proprietor with an extensive track record of evictions, according to data collected and tracked using the Housing Justice Project’s landlord research tool, developed by Salmun Kazerounian.

A stroll around Seramonte, however, reveals little evidence of its landlord’s managerial expertise and prosperity. Negligent mismanagement of the property has jeopardized the health and safety of its residents. Melissa Anderson testified to this effect: her daughter was left with a sprained arm and a permanently deformed finger after a faulty door — which she had repeatedly asked management to fix — fell off of its hinges on top of the toddler. Less than two years prior, just after her daughter was born, Melissa and her husband Barry were trapped in an apartment plagued by an infestation of black mold for over four months before management relocated them, after maintenance requests about a gushing leak under their kitchen sink went ignored.

Another resident, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, has watched her apartment fall apart around her: a bathroom floor that caved through into the basement, a toilet that backed up and flooded the tub with feces, drooping ceilings and cracking floor tiles and more. The catalog of testimonies submitted for Tuesday’s hearing illustrates how common and dangerous horror stories like these are for the residents of Seramonte.

As reported by NBC Connecticut, the complex was also the site of a fatal apartment fire in October, the cause of which has not been publicly released. Nonetheless, the maintenance roster continues to shrink, complaints and pleas remain unanswered, and tenants deemed particularly vocal find themselves the brunt of harassment and intimidation.

This is why the re-institution of Hamden’s FRC is so significant: Northpoint and others like them will no longer be able to escape justice by simply denying or staying silent. The adoption of this resolution is a testament to the power which Seramonte’s residents have developed through unionization and collective action, and a clear indication that the movement for housing justice is gaining steam. It is, however, far from an ultimate victory. Going forward, we must recognize and utilize the value of this newfound tool as we organize our buildings, our neighborhoods, our communities.

The pathway to formal union recognition offered by FRCs presents a tangible method with which to amplify our voices — voices which have been recurrently silenced by the influence of wealthy landlords. A state law just passed requiring that in July of next year all Connecticut towns with populations of over 25,000 must have FRCs. We’ve already managed to get one instituted in a city which beforehand had virtually no legal recourse for tenants; what will we achieve when we come together across the state, backed by these commissions, to decide on the future that we want to see and to take united action in pursuit of it?

To subvert the stranglehold of capital over our cities we must establish, cultivate and strengthen as many tenant unions as we can. The power we generate by doing so will secure further legislative wins as we continue to enact just and liberative transformation. We are living through a moment in which historic change is possible — a moment which must be seized. If we fail to do so, if we let this opportunity pass by, then we will not deserve the forgiveness of the future generations betrayed by our inaction.

Peter Fousek is an organizer with the Housing Justice Project/Connecticut Tenant Union.