After fire hit Joseph Palenza's multifamily building at 479-481 Farmington Ave. last month, city inspectors made a troubling discovery.
So many electrical hazards had accumulated over time — extension cords plugged into light sockets; loose or improper connections in junction boxes; overloaded circuits; overheated, undersized wiring; electrical work done without permits — that inspectors were forced to shut the entire building down even though most of it was not damaged by the fire.
The official cause of the blaze, which displaced five residents in the 12-unit West End building, was listed as undetermined.
The scenario was all-too familiar: In Hartford, fire and housing violations go hand in hand at an alarming rate, fueling the blight that burdens many of the city's neighborhoods.
The Courant reviewed all 70 residential fires between August, 2009, and April 1, 2011, in which at least one person was displaced.
The review found that 40 of the 70 buildings — nearly 60 percent — had housing- or building-code violations that predated the fires.
In contrast, city housing and building inspectors normally verify about 30 percent of the complaints they receive — which means fire found troubled multifamily buildings in Hartford at about twice that rate in the past 18 months.
The confirmed hazards and other code violations included unsafe electrical wiring, illegal rooming houses, illegal conversions from three- to five-family houses, illegal construction work, heat and hot water service interruptions, leaks, holes in the walls and roofs, rodent and vermin infestation, blocked fire exits, and garbage-strewn, overgrown properties.
The 40 buildings are mostly in areas already saddled with troubled properties: the Northeast neighborhood, Clay-Arsenal, Asylum Hill, Putnam Heights and the Hillside Avenue-New Britain Avenue area in south Hartford.
Thirty-two of the 40 buildings with existing violations were owned by absentee landlords, who do not live on the properties they are renting out.
The 70 fires forced 854 people out of their homes; more than 600 of those displaced lived in the 40 buildings with existing hazards and other violations.
Three people died in the 70 fires. One of those people perished in one of the 40 buildings with existing problems, though that blaze, at 481 Albany Ave., was an arson homicide and not linked to any violations.
"It's a bad cycle if you can't get out in front of these problems,'' said Glenn Corbett, a national fire-safety expert who is chairman of the school of protection management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
He said financially strapped cities like Hartford are weighed down with hazards associated with an aging housing stock, such as illegal apartment conversions in basements and attics and construction work done without permits — work that is often subpar. Because no permits are obtained, the city would be unaware of the work and unable to inspect it unless it got a complaint.
"We're really sitting on the edge of disaster — and the scary thing is that you don't know about the problem until you get the complaint,'' said Corbett.
A pattern of problems has emerged around the aging, overwhelmed buildings that characterize a lot of Hartford's low-end multifamily housing, city housing experts say.
Tenants go from one shoddy apartment to the next, often skipping out on months of back rent in their former building, and landlords are desperate enough to rent to anyone with the first month's rent.
Absentee owners have walked away from their properties and, in some cases, ceded control of their building to squatters and former tenants, who often charge rent and run up utility bills before bailing.
Hovering around some of these buildings are "agents,'' associates of the owners who broker apartments, collect rent and carry out evictions. But, unlike property managers, they often are not accountable for repairs or responding to tenant complaints.
"An evicted person may take any hole he can find,'' said Edison Silva, supervisor of housing-code enforcement for Hartford. "And if a landlord is desperate enough, he'll take you, so a hard cycle is perpetuated.''
Some of the 40 buildings that were already on a downward spiral before fires hit them were never repaired afterward and remain vacant and boarded — an invitation to squatters. These properties also drain money from the city in other ways. Twelve of the 40 properties owe at least $160,000 in delinquent taxes and liens — a 30 percent delinquency rate that is about 10 times higher than the citywide rate.
Mayor Pedro Segarra went to several of the fires in the 40 properties that had existing hazards.
"I've seen for myself what some landlords have done in order to bypass the proper work they have to do,'' he said. "I'm concerned about our housing stock from multiple angles; first and foremost from a safety standpoint. There are multiple explanations for the problem, and it requires more collaboration and comprehensive planning on our part.''
Segarra said he is working to increase the amount of decent housing in the city so that owners of bad buildings would either have to repair their properties to compete, or shut them down.
But on the front lines, the city's division of licenses and inspections has fewer enforcement personnel than it did 10 years ago, down from a high of seven housing-code inspectors, 16 building-code inspectors and four rodent inspectors, to five, eight and one, respectively.
Silva acknowledged that because of a shortage of inspectors, the city is not enforcing a law requiring landlords to notify the city when an apartment becomes vacant and to schedule an inspection before the unit is rented again.
The law used to be "self-enforceable'' — if the landlord didn't have the apartment inspected and didn't have a certificate of apartment occupancy, or CAO, the tenant would not be responsible for paying rent until the certificate was obtained, said housing lawyer David Pels of Greater Hartford Legal Aid.
But the legislature about 10 years ago removed the "no-rent'' provision. Landlords now are subject to fines for not having the CAO, but the city has only enough inspectors to perform the apartment surveys when landlords request them — so a mandatory program has become a voluntary one.
The CAO, say housing counselors, helps both landlord and tenant by establishing the condition of the apartment at the outset. The owners of large apartment complexes and conscientious owners of smaller rental buildings routinely request these inspections, but some landlords aren't interested in subjecting their properties to examination.
Silva said the city is devising a way to increase enforcement of the CAO requirement. The plan, he said, is to start checking for a certificate on apartments for which the housing office receives complaints. The owner would have 10 days to obtain a certificate or start accruing a $20-per-day fine.
"We would catch it at the time of the complaint,'' said Silva, though he added that the method by which the city would enforce and collect the fines is still being worked out with city lawyers.
Symptom Of Poverty
Along busy Farmington Avenue in the West End, there is anxiety over what will become of Palenza's, building, called, somewhat grandly, Colonial Arms. It has been deemed unfit for human occupation.
"We're going to fix it,'' said Palenza, of Glastonbury, a friendly man who owns a hair salon across Farmington Avenue from his building. "Go up to Kinko's and get me a copy of that inspection report so I can read up on it before we talk,'' he said last week at the salon.
He subsequently declined further comment.
Others in the neighborhood have plenty to say, however. Palenza's property is regarded as the "Butt-Ugly Building of the West End,'' a reference to another iconic blighted structure, a former department store in the North Main Street redevelopment area that was finally demolished in October.
"It's a substandard building. We were concerned about the safety of the people living there,'' said Deborah Garner, CEO of the Hartford Community Center, a West End human-service group located a few yards from Palenza's building on Farmington Avenue.
Garner said that her group, and neighborhood service organizations and business groups throughout Hartford, should intervene more often in the operation of blatantly bad buildings and offer outreach to tenants and assistance to landlords who are accepting of the help and responsive to the problems.
She said she knows that the recession has made it nearly impossible for some property owners to get loans to repair their aging buildings, "but there needs to be a commitment and partnership with the tenants to preserve the housing stock. You can't just collect rent and let the building go to hell,'' Garner said.
Greg Nails, a West End resident who chairs an advisory group at the Hartford Community Center, said landlords are sometimes inexplicably reluctant to make investments in their properties that would save money in the long run. As a result, tenants, including Nails, often use portable heaters to supplement their heat this winter, adding to the electrical load in the building and increasing the risk of fire.
"And because of the economics, people aren't always using the best heaters. They'll get the cheapest. People do what they can,'' said Nails, who worked for the state as a diet technician for 23 years and is now on medical leave. "Their needs to be a partnership between landlords and tenants. It's caulking and windows in our case. There are things we can do.''
"The bottom line," said Garner, referring back to 479 Farmington Ave., "is these are the signs of symptoms of poverty. Buildings like this one are the end of the road in terms of living conditions.''
Silva said Palenza has taken out building permits to do repair work on his property.
"As long as work is in progress and it's not occupied, that's sufficient for us to stop further enforcement action for now,'' said Silva.
He said unauthorized construction work in rental properties is a common and dangerous problem in the city.
When inspectors went to a sprawling apartment complex at 40-50 Willard St. in Asylum Hill after a three-alarm fire damaged multiple units and displaced 300 people in January 2010, they discovered work that had been done without permits. It involved improperly sealed penetrations in walls, a condition that can aid the spread of fire. Silva said the owners, Marks Group LLC, were directed to make repairs and have complied.
A Haunting Blight
The Rev. M. Robert McKnight wishes the building at 53-55 Acton Street in the Northeast neighborhood was getting one-tenth the attention of Palenza's property.
The fire-damaged, vacant Acton Street building is next door to McKnight's spotless, white and red church, the Old Ship of Zion Baptist Church. The blighted structure a few yards away is haunting the pastor's waking hours.
The building was gutted by fire in January, when a tenant left combustible material near a gas stove and walked away. The fire left six people homeless. Housing-inspection records show a series of violations, including multiple confirmed instances of no heat in the building in wintertime and an overgrown, garbage-strewn lot.
Owner Owen Barrett owes $6,100 in back taxes to the city and lists an address and phone numbers in the Bronx, N.Y. The church now wants the building demolished.
On Wednesday afternoon, Charlie Curry, who does landscaping work around the church, took a break from whacking weeds. He draped an arm over the chain-link fence and gestured to the back of the rotting, six-unit tenement.
"People are in and out of there all the time now,'' said Curry. "Two guys and a girl go in there to sleep. Ripped the board off the back door. We found it on the ground and nailed it back up.''
McKnight, an erudite man with a direct manner, shoots a reaffirming glance at a visitor.
McKnight and his congregation of 150 souls aren't used to sitting idly by and watching a problem fester. Some years ago, the church bought three houses across the street just to keep them from falling into disrepair. The church sold two of the houses to parishioners and rents out the third.
But the situation at 53-55 Acton appears intractable.
"I can't put this church that far into debt to buy that building." McKnight said. "I call the city. They have come out and cleaned up. My treasurer has tried to find the owner. We know he's in New York, but he doesn't respond to letters."
The Courant left voice mail messages on two phone numbers linked to Barrett in the Bronx, with no response.
"His problem has become my problem, the church's problem, this community's problem,'' McKnight said. "People want a church that is safe, that is clean. We do our best here, but we are in the midst of this.''
Silva said the Acton Street building might be a good candidate for the city's anti-blight program, under which properties can be acquired for demolition or rehabilitation if certain criteria are met.
But Silva acknowledged that the city is hesitant about taking on too many of these structures.
"We can't be in the real estate business,'' he said."Developers aren't lining up for these properties.''
For example, Silva said the city was going to demolish a blighted structure on Zion Street but decided to offer the $100,000 in demolition expenses to any developer willing to rehabilitate the building. There were no takers.
The city has yet to use the anti-blight law on an occupied structure, even one that is riddled with violations.
Instead, Silva said, his inspectors draw up arrest-warrant affidavits on recalcitrant landlords who haven't responded to notices of violations and orders to correct hazards. Referrals are made to housing court for criminal prosecution, but not all cases are pursued. When they are, Silva said it's not unusual for housing cases to remain open for nine months or more. Code violations are misdemeanors.
"The timing often doesn't serve our interests,'' Silva said. "The system is not really sending the message that it's serious about gaining compliance.''
A Troubling Pattern
The experience at 462 Barbour St. is emblematic of the effect that deteriorating buildings have on city neighborhoods when they burn.
Acting on a complaint, city housing inspectors in 2007 went inside the three-story, wood-frame tenement in Hartford's Northeast neighborhood, near Tower Avenue, and found the telltale evidence of an illegal rooming house in the basement: deadbolts on the door of individual rooms in a makeshift apartment.
The locks suggested that individual rooms were being rented. Three or more unrelated adults in an apartment constitutes a rooming house, which must be licensed and meet stringent building- and fire-code requirements.
The inspectors cited the owner, Kendall Andrews of Bloomfield, for having four unrelated adults in a dwelling unit and applied for an arrest warrant for Andrews' associate, Christopher Frazier, for housing-code violations, according to the housing-code file at the Division of Licenses & Inspections. Prosecutors did not pursue a complaint against Frazier.
Frazier and Andrews, in recent interviews, denied that a rooming house ever existed in the building. Frazier denied that he ever acted as an agent for Andrews. A public-record database lists Frazier as the creditor in two eviction cases at 462 Barbour St.
An entry in the housing-code file on the property says Frazier had created illegal rooming houses at multiple locations in the northern section of Hartford — an accusation Frazier strongly denies.
"What they say and what they can prove are two different things,'' he said.
Over the next two years, complaints about leaks, and lack of heat and hot water at 462 Barbour continued to trickle into the housing office. In September 2009, the building was heavily damaged in an arson. When housing inspectors came to check the building after the fire, they again found evidence of another illegal rooming house — but this time, it would be moot.
The fire shuttered the troubled building. From time to time, squatters have pried away boards and entered the building and city workers have had to come out nail back the boards. They billed Andrews, and he now owes the city $2,842 for the work, according to a city lien.
Today, 19 months after the fire, the building remains as it was after the firefighters left, boarded and abandoned. It adds further strain to a neighborhood so burdened with blight that residents are compiling "a top 10 bad building list" to shame the city into taking action.
Darlene Robertson, one of the city inspectors who worked on 462 Barbour, said she sees a pattern repeating itself in cases across the city.
"We come in, we see the violation, we cite the owner. We reinspect. It passes. Who's to say an hour later the deadbolts aren't back on the doors?'' said Robertson. "We've had tenants reoccupy vacated, placarded buildings. And they have rented apartments."
"You can play the game,'' Robertson said. "People know how to play the game.''