KILLINGWORTH

City residents voted overwhelmingly on September 21 to approve a five-member Fair Housing Commission to deal with citizen complaints about “unacceptable” rent increases and other rental housing issues. The action largely stems from residents of the Beechwood Mobile Home Park on Route 81 who said they faced rent increases from a new landlord, alarming community members over the age of 55, including many have fixed incomes.

Under state law, Fair Rent Commissions/Committees, including Killingworth, have the authority to receive and investigate complaints, conduct hearings, issue subpoenas and, in some cases, to order landlords to lower rents. The commission will also be responsible for ensuring that rental units meet local and state health and safety standards, according to city officials.

More than 100 tenants and residents of Killingworth packed the September 21 town meeting focusing on a draft ordinance to establish a fair rents commission in Killingworth and approved the ordinance by a vote of 91-25.

Community members present at the meeting, many of whom were residents of Beechwood Park, said they had suffered unfair rent increases and a drop in services and needed a way to take their concerns forward. According to several park residents, they have experienced a rent increase of about $30 per month over the past year and expect rents to increase again in the near future. Residents have also complained of a decline in services from new owners, Sun Communities, who bought the park in 2019.

First coach Nancy Gorski said the issue of fair rent is more complex and nuanced than it first appears.

“It seemed to happen organically with the folks at Beechwood. they contacted [35th District State Representative] Christine Goupil on this subject, and she had recommended a Fair Housing Commission. So we kind of picked it up and ran with it from there. What we have heard are concerns from residents that Sun Communities is a powerful conglomerate that cares more about shareholders than residents,” Gorski said. “It’s interesting that it’s not just for Beechwood. Remarkably, everywhere in the region there are tenants. You wouldn’t think Killingworth and some of the surrounding towns are a place to rent but there are a lot of people renting out their homes, there’s a lot of secondary suites…so there’s been quite a bit of interest in this topic . ”

Tenants at the meeting said a “regional vice president of Sun Communities” had recently spoken to park residents and said the rate of rent increases would match measures of inflation.

Beechwood residents met with Attorney General William Tong last week in hopes of developing additional surveillance strategies.

“They met last week and I think there were over 70 people there,” Gorski said. “There was a full house, and talking pragmatics, he’s a great speaker and very folksy…and he said, ‘Look, we’re up against a giant corporation…I don’t know how much leeway we’re going to have. get with Sun, but let’s take a look at it. He told us, from his perspective, that if there is potential for elder abuse or retaliation, then he can get involved. In addition, it is up to the tenant or landlord to prove or not that the rent increases violate the regulations.

Several attendees at the meeting expressed concerns about potential increases in the city’s legal fees. Gorski said she doesn’t anticipate excessive legal fees and cited neighbor Clinton, who has had a fair rent commission for two decades and, to her knowledge, has never had to go to court.

“I actually met Melanie Yanus at Clinton, who was instrumental in the development of their Fair Housing Commission, and she said to me, ‘Just make sure you know who you choose to put there. She said she wouldn’t expect a lot of cases to go to the commission, but we will get a lot of complaints. But these individual complaints can be mitigated without even having to go to the Fair Rent Commission,” Gorski said. “Ultimately, I’d like to see a cap on rent increases for mobile home parks from year to year. But that’s not an end in itself either. Any landlord can argue that ‘he has to make investments in his fleet, so that kind of thing could happen as well… I don’t really care.When I asked Melanie about it, their Fair Rental Commission has been in place for 20 years, and she said they haven’t had to sue or go to court once and I think that’s similar for Westbrook as well, so I really don’t foresee any increases or issues regarding an increase in legal fees.

Under Connecticut law, a Fair Rent Commission can limit rents if it finds the rent to be “harsh and impermissible,” which certainly leaves room for interpretation, officials say. It can also suspend a tenant’s rent if a landlord fails to follow health and safety rules, and it can order a landlord not to retaliate against a tenant who has approached the commission with a complaint.

By state law, when determining the appropriate rent, any housing entity must consider factors such as other rental costs in the area, safety and sanitation issues of the rental, the “amount and frequency” of rent increases and whether those funds will be dedicated. to improve properties.

Gorski said the Fair Rent Commission would provide an alternative process for residents to air grievances about rent increases, and would be another “tool in the box” to help resolve rental issues.

According to Gorski, the goal is for the commission to be enacted this week and constituted in November. The volunteer commission would be made up of residents with legal and technical backgrounds, but Gorski warned that selecting members would not necessarily be an easy action.

“It becomes a prescription, I believe on Friday next week [Oct. 7] and will start looking for suitable bodies to sit on this Fair Rent Commission as soon as that happens,” Gorksi said. “I have received advice… that having tenants or landlords on the committee might require people to recuse themselves. So, looking around me, I think we would like to have people with legal training. I would like to have someone who is pragmatic, who can look at each case objectively and make decisions that everyone can support.