By Robert Cyr
State Rep. Angel Arce has had enough. He’s fighting mad about blighted property in the district he represents in Hartford’s South End. He’s got absentee landlords in his sights and wants them to clean up their acts.
The frustrated Arce recently posted an open message to absentee landlords on his Facebook page, warning them that, “If you are a slum Landlord in my District am comming [sic] after you. you will not have my Constituents living this way. UNACCEPTABLE. Specially [sic] you slum landlords from out of state that only come to pick up Rent only. AM COMMING [sic] AFTER YOU.”
Arce said he plans to help work on a bill for next legislative session that would mirror similar laws in New York that allow cities to impose additional fees and taxes on out-of state landlords.
“In Hartford, especially in the South End, you have a lot of landlords that are out of state, mainly from New York. They only come here to collect rent and then they get the hell out without fixing or paying attention to the properties,” he said. “These people have gotten away with murder for too many years. It’s got to stop.”
In Bridgeport, the city has taken to instituting a “shame campaign” against the “worst of the worst” cases of blighted properties, buying up ad space in the Connecticut Post and naming the absentee landlord, along with pictures of the blighted property. A corresponding website was created featuring the same information – and the tactic has been met with great success, according to Christopher Rosario, the city’s anti-blight coordinator.
Since the shaming campaign began last year, the City of Bridgeport, which already fines landlords $100 a day for blight violations, has collected more than $150,000 in blight-related fines, Rosario said. “We want to take a tougher stance,” he said. “These landlords weren’t returning calls or anything. But the moment we put the ads in the paper, they wanted to know what to do to make it right.”
An innovative punitive step has been proposed in the legislature against “absentee landlords” who fail to keep up their properties. The proposed bill, HB 6235, An Act Concerning Blight Violations, was introduced by State Rep. Auden Grogins, D-129, and would allow municipalities like Bridgeport, which she represents, to impose a lien on a landlord’s private residence if that landlord’s rental properties have fallen into the category of “blight.”
Currently most cities are tasked with cleaning up the property themselves after exhausting efforts including a fine schedule with non-compliant landlords and placing a lien on that blighted property. But it isn’t enough; most landlords just ignore the lien, said Rosario. He supports the proposed bill, although it will do nothing to address the problem of absentee landlords who live out-of-state. “That’s a whole other ball of wax,” he said.
In his testimony to the General Assembly’s Committee on Planning and Development on Feb. 13, Rosario said, “The City of Bridgeport arguably faces the worst cases of blight. On average the city has its hands full with 500 or more blighted properties on an ongoing basis. Many of these property owners are repeat offenders who game the system as much as possible. Others are absentee landlords living in pristine homes while their tenants live in shambles.”
The proposed bill, however helpful, might come with a backlash. Frustrated or angry landlords might pass off the costs put on them by the city to their tenants, many of whom already have a hard time making ends meet, Arce said. And cleaning up and foreclosing on a property is an expense and a headache for the city.
Some cities, however, have already put tougher laws in place to crack down on blight but not without battle. New Britain made headlines late last year when it passed resolutions allowing the city to collect extra money in fees per unit per year for landlords who own property in the city but don’t live in New Britain. Those ordinances were immediately challenged by a group of property owners, which sued the city in New Britain Superior Court. In response, the cash strapped city tried to fight back by hiring a public relations firm for $100,000 to disseminate information about the city’s new ‘hot-spot’ ordinance and other anti-blight initiative, creating yet another controversy in the crusade against blight.
As reported in the New Britain Herald, a media partner of CTLatinoNews.com, Phil Sherwood, deputy chief of staff to Mayor Timothy O’Brien, said the administration believes the plaintiffs filed the lawsuit because of the city’s strong anti-blight policy. “There’s still a small group of out-of-town landlords committed to stopping ordinances designed to clean up neighborhoods and increase the quality of life of residents,” Sherwood said in the article. “New Britain has already begun to see the benefits of these anti-blight efforts and a small group of out-of-town landlords won’t remove that focus. The concerns mentioned in the suit have been addressed.”
Representatives from the Apartment Owners Association of Connecticut and the Connecticut Real Estate Investors Association did not return calls for comment.