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A Home Overdue

Rent hikes and poor living conditions are driving tenants to unionize across New Haven, but the city remains ill-equipped for collective action.

Through a soccer-ball-sized hole in Alex Kolokotronis’s bathroom floor, light shines up from the apartment below. The walls and ceiling are stripped to the studs. A layer of fine drywall dust coats every surface of the apartment. On an overstuffed living room bookshelf, “Every Tenant’s Legal Guide” rests atop Kropotkin’s “Direct Struggle Against Capital” and Godwin’s “An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice.” 

Two months ago, a pipe burst in Emerson Apartments, sending water streaming through Kolokotronis’s light fixture, into his bathroom, and through the floor into the apartment below.

The flooding forced Kolokotronis GRD ’23, who has lived in the building for seven years, and two other residents out of their units until repairs are finished.

Without demolition permits, the landlord, Trinity Lutheran Church, located next door, partially gutted the unit to remove mold and water damage: the bathroom is currently stripped to the framing, and the downstairs unit is visible through the floor. No work has been done on the apartment, Kolokotronis says, since the original demolition—and lack of proper permitting—led to a Stop Work order in early March. 

Photography by Ellie Park

After the pipe burst, property manager Raymond Sola texted Kolokotronis’s downstairs neighbor James Blau. Blau has lived in Emerson for twelve years with his cat and his 17-year-old son, of whom he has half custody; since February 1st, Blau has been unable to live with his son. “Rent payments continue,” Sola wrote in the text, “as this is not a scheduled work [sic].” But Kolokotronis, who completed a doctoral degree at Yale focused on labor organizing and participated in a 2017 hunger strike in support of labor union Local 33, knew this was illegal. He contacted the New Haven Fair Rent Commission—the municipal board that processes and investigates tenant complaints regarding unfair rent practices—which affirmed his right to cease rent payments while displaced. Still, fed up with inconsistent communication from the landlord, he roused his neighbors to form the Emerson Tenants Union. 

Over the last few years, landlords and city officials in New Haven have learned that there is a limit to what renters will tolerate. Between 2019 and 2023, rent in the city went up by an estimated 33 percent, far outpacing wage increases. By 2023, 52 percent of renters in New Haven were cost-burdened, meaning they spent more than 30 percent of their income on rent. 

In the face of climbing rents and increasingly dangerous and illegal living conditions, New Haven tenants have arrived at their own solution: unionization. Emerson Tenants Union is among five tenant unions to emerge in the city since the 2022 formation of the Blake Street Tenants Union. The Emerson union is the only union of the five that has formed in a property not owned by mega-landlord Ocean Management. Unionization beyond corporate landlords, which have been accused of slumlord practices, reflects tenants’ deeper needs for recognition and recourse.

Though this groundswell of tenant unionization seems to have momentum, the city’s bureaucracy has been unable to keep up. City agencies, like the Fair Rent Commission and the Liveable Cityies Initiative, are designed to process individual complaints and cannot handle cases brought collectively by tenant unions. A local ordinance passed two years ago bars landlords from retaliating against organizers over unionization, but there is no local, state, or federal requirement for property owners to bargain with a tenants union. Kolokotronis and other tenants imagine a near future where landlords and unions negotiate lease terms without the power imbalance that exists between corporations and individuals—but they may need additional legislative support to make this happen.

When New Haven’s Board of Alders unanimously voted to formally recognize tenant unions in 2022, it named the Fair Rent Commission (FRC) the mediator between the unions, the city, and landlords. This meant tenants unions must file with the FRC to gainfor official recognition. That same year, Connecticut legislature passed a law requiring towns larger than twenty-five thousand people to create their own fair rent commissions, many of which look to New Haven’s model as a successful blueprint. 

New Haven’s FRC is made up of nine board members and two permanent employees. It has the authority to strike down rent increases which it deems “harsh and unconscionable,” as well as to license inspections, issue subpoenas, and order landlords to take action to resolve issues regarding housing conditions. 

Illustration by Daniela Woldenberg

Executive Director Wildaliz Bermudez says the FRC’s mission has remained unchanged since it was incorporated in 1970. Meanwhile, the needs of tenants, the conditions of the buildings they inhabit, and the economics of the housing market may not be the same. In 2022, the FRC added a second full-time employee in response to a rising case count: since 2019, complaints have risen from a few dozen to several hundred every year. Bermudez attributes the increase to more tenants learning about redress processes, but the rise could also indicate deteriorating renting conditions across the city. 

At Emerson Apartments, conditions and communication with the landlord have deteriorated. “We let things go because we thought we had this… intimate or personal relationship with our landlord, the church,” Kolokotronis said. But tenants’ personal connections to the church disintegrated last summer following the death of a beloved church administrator, and any remaining trust evaporated after the pipe burst. When residents of the building, many of whom have lived there for at least a decade, started talking to one another, they realized they all had similar frustrations with landlord communication. “The lack of communication [from the landlord] is ridiculous,” said Yvonne Byrd-Griffin, one of the building’s tenants and a member of the labor union Local 34. “There’s so much nonsense going on.” Fellow tenant Kenneth Naito MUS ’24 didn’t know many of his neighbors until Kolokotronis made an online group chat for the building, encouraging his neighbors to form a union. From there it took just twenty-seven27 hours, Kolokotronis said, to sign on a supermajority of residents. Later that week, the city of New Haven certified the Emerson Tenants Union. 

Kolokotronis and others told me they feel that within its limited scope, the New Haven FRC is doing its job well, managing the often-tense relationship between landlord and individual tenant. Members of the Emerson Tenants Union relied on the FRC to get a response from their landlord, who did acknowledge that taking rent while the apartments were uninhabitable violated state law. Still, the FRC is currently only able to address complaints brought by an individual, and the protections it provides for unions is limited. Statewide tenant organization Connecticut Tenants Union president Hannah Srajer GRD ’25 told me that if FRCs were sufficient to resolve the power imbalance between landlords and tenants, “We [the union] would not exist.”

Even after forming a union, Emerson tenants face logistical hurdles. To move forward with a Fair Rent Commission complaint, Kolokotronis needed an inspection report from the city’s housing code inspection authority, the Livable City Initiative (LCI). LCI was much less responsive than the FRC, and reached no resolution. An inspection report filed February 12th––nearly two weeks after pipes began to leak––notified property manager Sola that immediate repairs would be required. Getting a copy of this report took Kolokotronis nearly six weeks. The report specified that the landlord should address the leak within seven hours. Still, it is unclear whether LCI, which has recently been criticized for inefficient and ineffective responses, followed up with the landlord. LCI staff members referred all questions to Lenny Speiller, Director of Communications for the Mayor. Speiller said that through LCI and the FRC, the City is “using all the tools in its enforcement toolkit” to address the situation at the Emerson Apartments. 

On April 22nd, Sola served Kolokotronis and Blau with Notices to Quit, the first step in the eviction process. The notices, posted on the doors of the condemned units, state that “The premises… are being occupied by one or more persons who originally had the right or privilege to occupy such premises but such right or privilege has terminated,” and “The premises described above are being occupied by one or more persons who never had a right or privilege to occupy such premises.” According to the State of Connecticut Judicial Branch, such notices must be formally served, but Kolokotronis and Blau only learned of their eviction when neighbors spotted notices taped to the doors of their uninhabitable apartments. The news, they both said, was completely unexpected. Speiller told me via text that the FRC “has been in contact with the tenants and [is] reviewing the matter.” He added that it was the responsibility of the landlord to demonstrate that the notice was appropriate, and that a judge in housing court would make the final determination.

Apparently-retaliatory action by landlords is nothing new. But recourse through a union in the City’s systems is, and the future of rental policy will be revealed in New Haven’s response to cases like this, and the toolkit will be pushed to its limit.

The Emerson Tenants Union has struggled to bring Trinity Lutheran Church to the negotiating table. Just one of New Haven’s tenant organizations, the Blake Street Tenants Union, has reached a formal negotiation agreement with its landlord. Unlike labor unions, tenants unions have no legal provisions requiring that their landlords recognize them as bargaining units or engage in collective bargaining—negotiating leases as a group instead of as individuals. When asked about collective bargaining guarantees for tenants, State Senator Martin Looney said, “That’s what we want to move toward,” adding, “We’ll probably need state enabling legislation.”

Labor organizations benefit from a long history of hard-won legal protections. When Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, it posited collective bargaining as a right, not a privilege. The statute is premised on the notion that strikes demanding greater rights and protections for labor unions had disrupted the flow of commerce; to limit the power of employers, the government needed a strong case for protecting the public good. Nearly one hundred years later, the process of making those demands on behalf of tenants, instead of workers, is just beginning. But the precedent exists, and many—including Senator Looney—are keen to draw the parallel.

Kolokotronis spent portions of his childhood in New York City facing housing insecurity. When he was a teenager, he saw firsthand the conditions rent hikes create: shortly after his father passed away, his family’s landlord doubled their rent, forcing him to move into an unsafe and unstable living situation. 

Now, months after unionizing, members of Emerson Tenants Union wonder what comes next. Union members and around three dozen others rallied outside city hall on April 13th, seventy-one days after Kolokotronis and Blau were forced to move into temporary accommodation. Kolokotronis, Blau, and the other displaced tenant still don’t have a livable home to return to.

“What’s the point of forming a union if no one at city hall will meet with us as a union?” Blau asked the crowd at the rally.

On March 21st, three weeks after issuing the Stop Work order, the City of New Haven Building Department issued a building permit to Trinity Lutheran Church to begin repairs on the damaged units. As of April 13th, repairs had not yet begun. Speiller told me that the building department had placed a lien on the property, which will be lifted only when repairs are made and inspected. The landlord has not provided tenants with any information regarding a timeline for repairs. Sola and attorney Che Tiernan did not respond to requests for comment.

At the City Hall rally, union members carried signs and a megaphone. Organizers from Hartford, Hamden, and other cities were present in solidarity with the group’s demand: to meet with city leaders, including Mayor Elicker and Alders, to resolve the stagnation. No city officials were present. 

Signs show that the City may be responding to tenant unions’ evolving needs, if slowly. Mayor Justin Elicker’s administration, beginning April 22nd, contracted former mayoral candidate Liam Brennan as a consultant to help overhaul LCI. It’s a clear response to public demand—what Brennan describes as a need to establish tenants’’  rights in the face of commodification. Housing becomes commodified, he explained, when property is used primarily to build wealth and capital rather than to serve a need for shelter. He added that alternate structures like tenant unions will likely continue to drive policy “from the bottom up,” forcing broader legislative action over time.

Where labor unions are strong, research finds that non-union wages go up too. Tenant unions in acutely commodified housing might raise the standard landlords must meet, even for non-unionized tenants—if organizers can compel city bureaucracy to afford tenant unions the same protections as labor unions.

When Blau texted property manager Sola to ask whether he could be refunded for rent during the period in which he was forced to move out, Sola responded, “Life is not fair. That’s what insurance is for.” And while the FRC was able to nudge the landlord into following the law, it has so far failed to create a long-term resolution to the situation at Emerson Apartments. The members of the Emerson Tenants Union know that life isn’t fair. But, they believe, that’s what a union is for.

– Lazo Gitchos is a senior in Trumbull College.

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