The apartments at 311 Blake Street in New Haven
The apartments at 311 Blake Street in New Haven are now owned by an affiliate of Ocean Management. Credit: Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent / ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Jessica Stamp

The housing crisis in Connecticut feels hopeless right now. But we can fight it by telling our stories to the politicians in power who need to understand that this crisis affects tenants in every city and town in Connecticut. Together, we can demand change.

Last summer, I and other members of the Blake Street Tenants Union in New Haven met with Shmuel Aizenberg, our mega-landlord and the owner of Ocean Management. He stated that he would give us a notice to quit because he was renovating, even though Ocean Management previously said we could stay. Although he wouldn’t disclose the new rent prices then, we now know that he increased rent by 68% for a one-bedroom, and 72% for a two-bedroom.

After the meeting, I combed through rental websites every day to find a new apartment. Instead, I found panic. Nothing was in my price range. I’m a 41-year-old teacher in a labor union, an employee of the state of Connecticut, and a single woman out of an abusive marriage, and I can’t afford to move.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development recommends a one-third rule: rent and utilities should cost one-third of your monthly take-home paycheck. The remainder should cover groceries, bills, loans, and savings. This is the actual definition of affordable housing. Currently, my rent is $950 a month, $1,200 with utilities; I follow the one-third rule. It’s affordable. I have a decent apartment, the peace of living alone, and a strong community with my neighbors through our tenants union.

While apartment hunting, the cheapest rents I found were around $1,200 a month. They were studios, attic apartments with slanted ceilings, or income-restricted, requiring a Section 8 voucher. A $1,400 one-bedroom apartment, which is a $450 increase, would leave me precariously living paycheck to paycheck, unable to save, and moving costs would reduce my savings. This would not be considered affordable housing. In my case, there is little to no affordable housing stock on the market.

And before the “don’t buy coffee” crowd jumps in, I don’t drink coffee and I rarely get take-out. No individual renter can be careful enough with their money when the whole system is designed to price gouge. In just two years, rents in Connecticut have skyrocketed by over 20%. Over the past two decades, rents have increased at four times the rate of wages. Unless wages keep up with rent hikes, people like me and my neighbors — who are in the same situation or worse — won’t be able to afford rent.

All around the state, tenants are seeing rent increases up to $800. Landlords claim they raise rent because of market value, but, in actuality, mega-landlords and out-of-town corporate firms manipulate “market value” — artificially driving up rents by keeping apartments vacant and speculating about investments. Ocean Management has at least 30 vacancies in my complex, and in every Ocean-owned three-family home I’ve visited with the Connecticut Tenants Union, there are at least one or two vacancies. Given that Ocean owns over 1,000 apartments in New Haven, the company can single-handedly alter citywide market values.

The system is rigged.

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

Senate Bill 138, a bill before the state legislature, will cap rent increases at 2.5%, ensuring that rents keep pace with wages. It would end predatory rent hikes and stabilize communities. Personally, it will allow me to save money in order to buy a house.

This bill will also end no-cause evictions, which occur when a landlord uses the expiration of a lease to kick a tenant out, even when the tenant pays rent on time, maintains their apartment, and is not a nuisance. In Connecticut, a landlord must only give a tenant three days notice before kicking them out! My landlord wants to kick us out so he can “renovate.” In reality, it appears to members of the Blake Street Tenants Union that Ocean Management merely paints and updates the appliances, and then charges exorbitant prices for apartments in buildings with cracked foundations, rodent infestations, and crumbling brick walls, among other problems.

Connecticut law currently provides no-cause eviction protections to senior citizens and persons with disabilities. My 90-year-old neighbors, tenants on the property for over 40 years, are protected. I’ve been living here for over five years as a model tenant. I would like to be protected, too.

Housing is a right, but landlords treat it like a predatory profit scheme, and they hold all the power. So, let’s take back that power. The Blake Street Tenants Union brought our stories to state Sen. Gary Winfield who listened, and he brought SB-138 to the state senate. I know I’m not alone in fearing for my housing, and I know my story is nowhere near as dire as others. To get this bill passed, we need the support of politicians from around the state. It’s time for you to tell your story to your state reps and senators. Let’s demand rent stability together.

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Jessica Stamp

Jessica Stamp is a leader of the Blake Street Tenants Union, an organizer with the Connecticut Tenants Union and the Cap the Rent CT Coalition, and a high school teacher.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.