Mayor Luke Bronin is proposing major revisions to Hartford’s housing code enforcement in response to concerns brought to his attention by a group of North End tenants.
Bronin unveiled his proposal late Thursday at a meeting organized by the Christian Activities Council and residents of the Clay Arsenal Renaissance Apartments, subsidized housing owned by Emmanuel Ku, an embattled New York City landlord.
The mayor told the group, assembled inside Union Baptist Church on Main Street, that his plan is more proactive and would “allow the city to get ahead of situations like yours before they get worse.”
“I’m sorry that you’re facing this and living in these conditions,” Bronin said. “But I’m incredibly proud of you for the way you’ve organized and raised your voices.”
It was a significant victory for the tenants, whose conflict with Ku reared this summer, when they first organized to complain about mold, rodent infestations and other hazards in the 26 buildings Ku owns in the capital city.
Their activism prompted action by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which initially issued Ku two notices of default on his contract with them.
Bronin said his proposed policy change would create a “residential rental licensing program.” Landlords would have to apply for licenses before they could rent any units, and would be subject to regular inspections.
Now, all housing-code inspections by the city are reactive, generated by either landlord or tenant complaints. The city also requires all landlords to file certificates of apartment occupancy every time a unit is turned over, and each certificate filed requires an inspection from the city.
But it’s a policy that’s easily flouted. Since taking ownership of the Clay Arsenal Renaissance Apartments in 2011, Ku has filed only two certificates of occupancy with the city, officials said. Based on the tenant list he provides annually, he should’ve filed 64.
“We’ve already sent notice to Ku that he is out of compliance, and we will be following up with that,” Bronin said. “If he doesn’t comply, we will sue. We need to use every tool we have in our toolbox.”
Though that announcement was one of the highlights of the meeting, it was far from the only issue discussed.
Tenants and organizers alike pushed Bronin to take a closer look at the tax abatement deal the city made with Ku, which relieves him of 80 percent of assessed property taxes. They argue, in a resolution approved by city council this week, that the city’s Committee on Abatement of Assessments and Taxes needs to determine if Ku is putting the savings from that agreement into maintaining his property, as the contract stipulates.
Bronin responded to that request as well, promising that the committee would review the abatement and the documentation it requires Ku to provide, and provide the tenants an answer within 30 days.
“That contract is not nearly strong enough, but we will use every hook we have in it to try and get the ability to pull that abatement,” Bronin said. “We would love to pull that abatement, and we would also love for those fines to start wracking up against Mr. Ku.”
Ku, in an open letter to residents sent Wednesday, fired back against this effort and calls by the Christian Activities Council for HUD to terminate its section 8 contract with him.
The landlord said the group is “blatantly misrepresenting both the history of the CARA project and the quality of life it provides its residents, apparently in pursuit of their own political ambitions.”
He said that, without the abatement he receives, “no one could afford to provide the housing for low-income tenants that CARA provides.” He also said he has poured “hundreds of thousands of dollars” into the buildings — which he claimed were in “grossly deficient maintenance” when he purchased them in a foreclosure auction — and pledged to continue to work closely with HUD.
Last month, HUD’s notice of default against Ku was dropped to a less-severe status, a “demand for corrective action,” according to Rhonda Siciliano, a spokeswoman for HUD.
“The owner filed an appeal with HUD on the notice of default, which they have the right to do,” Siciliano said. “And, based upon review of their arguments, in giving the passing [recertification] score, the decision was made to change the notice of default.”
That decision came after HUD gave Ku’s 150 housing units a passing score of 74 this summer following his first notice of default. And it also comes with a stipulation: He must complete a 2,300-point repair plan, broken into four major phases, the most recent of which ended last week.
But several tenants told The Courant Ku this week asked them to sign a petition that simultaneously pledges solidarity to him and asks the Christian Activities Council to “cease and desist” its organizing efforts. Some claimed he stoked fears that they could become homeless if the federal Section 8 housing assistance contract is pulled.
David E. Tille, HUD’s regional administrator in New England, promised residents that the agency’s legal team is “looking into the circumstances surrounding the petition,” in a letter sent to them on Thursday.
And although Tille added that “the physical conditions at Clay Arsenal have not been acceptable to the department,” he cautioned tenants against pushing HUD to terminate its contract with Ku.
If that were to happen, the stock of subsidized housing in the Greater Hartford area would be adversely affected — the Clay Arsenal Renaissance Apartments represent 26 percent of all “multifamily housing five-bedroom units” in the metropolitan area, according to Tille.
Regardless, if that contract were to end, Tille said eligible tenants would receive housing relief vouchers from HUD and would get assistance in finding new housing, whether in Hartford or elsewhere.
“If and when abatement of the contract is under consideration, the tenants will be notified well in advance and the process will be carefully managed to ensure residents are protected,” Tille said.