MERIDEN — The City Council will take up a proposed ordinance to establish a local Fair Rent Commission when it meets in early June.
Under the local ordinance as proposed, the commission, once established, would have the power to “receive complaints, inquiries, and other communications concerning alleged excessive rental charges and alleged violations, including retaliation,” language that is similar to a model ordinance drafted by Partnerships for Strong Communities, a statewide advocacy group. The commission’s purpose is defined by state law.
State law, according to 2-1-1 of Connecticut, indicates that a fair rent commission has further authority: when it “finds that rental housing does not meet the local or state health or safety requirements for housing, the commission may suspend rent payments until the housing is brought into compliance. Also, a commission may order a landlord to stop any retaliation against a tenant who makes a complaint to the commission. A fair rent commission has this authority only within the boundaries of the city/town that established it.”
According to Partnership for Strong Communities, every town with a population of at least 25,000 residents or more as of the most recent census count is required under state statute passed in 2022 to enact a local Fair Rent Commission. Meriden, Wallingford, Cheshire and Southington were among the municipalities that the law newly required to have established commissions by July 1, 2023. Wallingford, Southington and Cheshire all passed ordinances establishing those commissions, according to previous Record-Journal reports.
The makeup of the five-member board as proposed in Meriden stipulates that one member be a current tenant, one a current landlord, and three other board members represent neither interest. The commission’s membership, as proposed, would have two alternate members.
The City Council’s Economic Development, Housing and Zoning Committee held a public hearing regarding the proposed commission’s establishment last week.
Members of the public who either addressed the committee in person or submitted written comments recommended some amendments to the ordinance as proposed.
“Please know that a Fair Rent Commission is not rent control,” said Jeffrey Freiser, a Meriden resident and former executive director of the Connecticut Housing Coalition. “It will have no impact whatsoever on the vast, vast majority of Meriden landlords.”
Freiser said the commission would have the ability to act when a rent increase is “so excessive” that it imposes “extreme rent burdens” on tenants. Freiser, during his remarks also noted that the Rent Commission, through its review of complaints, would have the ability to help city officials ensure residential properties are in compliance with the current building code.
The commission would have the authority to delay proposed rent increases until violations are corrected, Freiser said, adding this would help “to eliminate substandard units and improve the housing stock in the city of Meriden.” Freiser recommended that the proposed terms for commission members be reduced to three years from four years, which was the term length outlined in the draft ordinance.
Another resident, Colleen Cyr, raised concerns that the proposed ordinance as presented on May 17, did not include language referencing the state’s Freedom of Information Act, including a requirement that commission hearings “be open to the public.”
City Attorney Emily Holland also presented a series of amendments, some of which she said were intended to correct typographical errors in the proposed ordinance’s language.
Holland also recommended amendments that addressed Freiser’s and Cyr’s concerns about term lengths and Freedom of Information Act compliance.
Holland’s recommendation on terms was three years, like Freiser suggested. In response to Cyr’s concern about FOIA compliance, Holland said the amendment she proposed would include language to make that compliance “explicit in the ordinance.”
Another amendment Holland discussed was the inclusion of language within the ordinance outlining the commission’s authority when landlords fail to comply with a commission order.
“The commission has the ability to enforce penalties and go to court to enforce its own orders,” Holland said. “...Inserting this language would make it very clear.”
Holland recommended additional language that makes it easier for landlords, residents and tenants to know what their rights are.
The EDHZ Committee’s discussion of the proposed ordinance centered largely on the proposed commission’s composition.
City Councilor Bruce A. Fontanella initially proposed amending the ordinance so that two of its five members needed to be tenants, two needed to be landlords and one a neutral party.
“I think that would be a lot better than the possibility, as it is written here, to have one tenant and four landlords… I am afraid we’re going to have a hard time finding tenants,” Fontanella said, adding he would like to see the parties with vested interest in the commission’s actions be represented equally on it.
City Manager Timothy Coon said his concern regarding that amendment is that there are not as many landlords available as there are tenants to potentially serve on the commission. Coon said Fontanella’s concern is valid, but he recommended the amendment state one landlord and one tenant.
Fontanella said he still believed it would be better to start with two landlords and two tenants, and one neutral party.
The committee eventually arrived at a compromise, when councilor Yvette Cortez proposed language stating that no more than two landlords and two tenants can serve on the commission.
Cortez said she appreciates Fontanella’s concern about having individuals serve on the board without support. “I don’t think that would be fair,” Cortez said. “And we’ve got to be realistic with what we’re working with.”
Cortez recommended leaving room for additional neutral parties on the board.
After further discussion, the committee settled on language stating one landlord, one tenant and three neutral parties.
City Councilor Dan Brunet, who serves as EDHZ vice chairman, did not attend the committee’s May 17 meeting.
Brunet said he believes the commission, much like the Civilian Police Review Board and the Human Rights, Racial Equity & Social Justice Committee, is an unnecessary board. The requirement to establish such a commission reflects “feel good politics in Connecticut that are out of control with these mandates,” Brunet said.
Brunet said with “substantial tax and insurance increases” on the horizon, rents will need to be increased.
“It doesn’t seem fair for landlords to have to publicly justify rent increases,” Brunet said.