I-TEAM: Hartford Tenants feel out-of-state landlords escape accountability for ‘unsafe, unsanitary’ living conditions
HARTFORD, CT (WFSB) - Out of state, out of mind?
While 75% of people living in the City of Hartford are renters, many of their landlords don’t have a Connecticut address.
Chief investigative Reporter Sam Smink explains why tenants feel that makes it easier for landlords to disappear.
105 SHERBROOKE AVENUE:
At 105 Sherbrooke avenue in Hartford, tenants say you’ll find:
Blood on the walls.
An apartment door the tenant lined with duct tape, to prevent roaches from coming in.
Jars of urine in the hallway.
Yarazed Meinhofer say a homeless man sleeps in the hallway in front of her door every night.
It’s the landlord’s responsibility to provide locked entrances.
“I don’t feel safe there. I don’t feel like my kids are safe there,” says Meinhofer.
She also says she spends her own money on cleaning supplies, routinely cleaning common areas that are dirty, which is the landlord’s responsibility. Tenants are responsible for their own trash.
“It also falls on us tenants that care to clean the building,” says Meinhofer.
Jason Avilez is speaking on behalf of his mother. She’s lived in the building for more than 5 years, paying $1,000 a month.
“Garbage thrown to the side, no security,” says Avilez.
She has trouble getting up to her 4th floor apartment because of the broken elevator. Avilez says his mom struggles to make it up the stairways, which she says are not just dirty but unsafe.
“I try to tell her to move out of there, and when she mentions the problems to the landlord, the company’s answer is, just move out. Find another place,” says Avilez.
Their words mirror those of other tenants across the city.
Tenants who spoke in front of City Council in October, bringing the same concerns.
Tenants who say they feel property managers and landlords do not care.
Tenants are told to reach out to the property management companies hired by landlords with any issues that need fixing.
“We try to call, no answers,” says Jessica Ahmad, a tenant at 108 Sherbrooke Avenue.
“After I signed my lease, I never saw someone from that office,” says Heiress Melendez. She used to live at 887 Asylum Avenue and has since become an advocate for those who still live there, and are afraid to speak up themselves, for fear of retaliation.
“I send emails, they said they didn’t receive it. I made a copy of the email, I have evidence, and nothing happens,” says Meinhofer.
The tenants we spoke with say they don’t even know who their landlords, the owners of the building, are.
In many cases, the owners live out of state.
OUT OF STATE, OUT OF MIND?
A spokesperson for Hartford’s Housing Department said they do not have the numbers of out of state landlords renting apartments, readily available.
A records search shows 12,000 homes and apartments in the city have owners with out of state mailing addresses.
Heiress Melendez said she never knew who the owner of the building was. “You never got to meet anyone; it was just the people who had us sign the lease,” says Melendez.
Michael Kohen owns 105 Sherbrooke Avenue.
His address with the state lists his main office in New Jersey.
More than 100 housing inspections in the past two years have been done on his properties, he’s paid around $8,000 in fines for health and safety violations. He still owes $8,000 more.
In September, Kohen sold 27 of the 28 apartment buildings he owned in the city for $59 million dollars.
He sold 762 units to a New Yorker named Dun Srulowitz.
He kept ownership of 105 Sherbrooke Avenue.
We asked Heiress Melendez is she thought, with landlords being out of state, tenants are out of mind? She said, “I think so. I think it’s more so, as long as I have money in my pockets, as long as I’m getting the benefits, to hell with everything.”
While the city says Mr. Srulowitz is working to improve all the properties; and is very responsive, the tenants we spoke with say the first thing that happened under the new ownership was an increase in their rent.
They feel the buildings are being improved, to push them out.
“I was supposed to originally pay $775 then the rent got increased to $900 and they’re forcing us to actually sign leases with them, if we don’t, we have to pay $900 a month plus an additional 200 dollars every month on top of that,” says Jessica Ahmad.
TRACKING DOWN THE LANDLORDS/OWNERS:
For months, the I-team has tried to track both owners down to address the allegations.
To find them, we started with their property management companies here in Connecticut.
After being told no one at either company would speak to us, we took the next step.
Kohen’s office in New Jersey sits inside a set of office suites, that’s part of a shopping center.
We found him on the second floor, the sign on the door is one of multiple names his company goes by.
An office representative told us he wasn’t there, and there was no way to reach him.
Then we headed to New York, to Srulowitz’s company address.
There, we found a small paper sign taped to the door of the building, using the name Maple Group Management, the same name of his property management company in CT.
We found an empty office in his suite upstairs, despite the lights being on and computers running.
If it’s hard for us to track them down ....
We asked Judith Rothschild, the director of Housing Code Enforcement and Blight Remediation for the City of Hartford if the city can make owners more accessible to tenants.
“Well, I think the owners have a responsibility to identify themselves to their tenants. If they haven’t done that and we have the information, we share it with the tenants,” says Rothschild.
We also asked Rothschild about the property management companies.
City law doesn’t allow code enforcement to fine them or even take them to court, only the owners.
The landlords/owners are the ones who ultimately have the responsibility to fix their properties.
“If the owner of the property has a management company that’s insufficient then they’re going to have to pay the price for that,” says Rothschild.
But Rothschild says she wants tenants to trust that the city is making sure owners know what they need to do.
Kohen has been ordered to fix the elevator at 105 Sherbrooke, he’s appealing the decision.
Code Enforcement did say they were told parts for the elevator are on back order.
“It feels like nothing is getting done. The process can take a while and that’s just unfortunately what we’re stuck with because we’re obligated to follow the legal process,” says Rothschild.
Rothschild said the rental licensing program is the answer to landlord problems.
The city right now is going through the process of licensing all rental properties, a process that will require each property go through a rigorous inspection process.
So far, only 12 properties have been inspected and licensed.
Properties belonging to Kohen or Srulowitz are not one of them.
“The change of the quality of life is the goal here, nobody should be living in a condition that is not safe and sanitary,” says Rothschild.
“I’m paying my rent, and I’m doing my job, they should do theirs,” says Billie Terry of 94 Sherbrooke Avenue.
PART TWO: TUESDAY -
How does the rental licensing program work, and how could enforcement against landlords be made quicker?
We’ll have more on the I-Team’s conversation with Code Enforcement Tuesday.
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