MERIDEN — The City Council’s Economic Development, Housing and Zoning Committee on Tuesday night took its first look at a proposed ordinance to establish a Fair Rent Commission in the city.
A statute passed by state lawmakers in 2022 requires all municipalities with more than 25,000 residents to adopt local ordinances establishing their own fair rent commissions by July 1 of this year. Meriden is among the communities statewide that does not currently have such a commission and would be required to form one under the law.
On Tuesday night, City Attorney Emily Holland reviewed the proposed local ordinance related to the commission with EDHZ members. Holland noted the language for the local ordinance is derived from a model ordinance, which was drafted by Home Connecticut, a campaign affiliated with the statewide housing advocacy group Partnership for Strong Communities.
The proposed local ordinance will go to a public hearing before the EDHZ committee in April. After a hearing has been held, the committee will act on whether to recommend the proposal to the City Council for approval.
Council Majority Leader Sonya Jelks proposed the local resolution.
Holland, in providing an overview of the proposal, discussed the state statute that required it and the commission’s powers and duties.
Holland noted the commission can only act within its scope of authority as defined under state law, including receiving complaints and holding hearings on those complaints.
Holland said the commission could determine a rent is excessive and order it be limited to be fair and equitable.
“It does have the power to make changes to rental charges,” Holland said. If the commission finds a housing unit is not up to code, the commission would have the ability to order rent payments be suspended until the property is in compliance with building codes. Rent could instead be made and paid to the commission, which would hold those payments in escrow until that compliance.
The proposed ordinance as currently drafted would establish the commission as a five-member board with at least one member a current landlord and another member a current tenant. The members of the commission would serve staggered, four-year terms without compensation.
When asked by committee members about the proposed membership of the commission, Holland responded the determination was made in part based on Meriden’s size and what would be a reasonable number for the City Council to fill. The legal department determined that five members would be a reasonable number for the council to fill.
“Through that, five members would be able to meet regularly, having the ability to vote on matters. One shall be a landlord, one shall be a tenant,” Holland said, adding that the landlord to tenant ratio is based on the recommended ratio in the model ordinance.
City Councilor Dan Brunet asked whether other communities have representatives of local legislative bodies and department heads on their commissions.
Holland said the state law does not have a requirement around whether commissions can include representatives from elected bodies as part of their membership.
Councilor Bruce A. Fontanella suggested the commission have at least two landlords and two tenants, with the fifth member representing one of those two groups.
Fontanella raised issues that were brought forth by resident Colleen Cyr around the commission’s appeals process and compliance with the state Freedom of Information Act, through the public posting of the dates of its meetings and agendas. Cyr noted the resolution as written did not make specific reference to the state FOIA statute.
Holland responded by saying the commission would be subject to state open meeting requirements.
During the EDHZ Committee’s discussion, Fontanella said he thought it would be good to put protections for tenants in the hands of one city agency, like the Fair Rent Commission — “so that it gives tenants access to a hearing forum that doesn’t require a lawyer… or that fees be paid to the state of Connecticut. It makes it more accessible, the rights the tenants have, and less expensive.”
Brunet asked Holland if there is any screening prior to complaint hearings.
Holland responded that before a hearing would be scheduled the ordinance “does contemplate there being an informal process” to encourage the parties to resolve issues without needing that hearing.
EDHZ Committee chair Michael Rohde asked if there are any specific requirements related to eviction proceedings.
Holland said the Fair Rent Commission would be a step the tenant would take “before they get to the position where they are not paying rent — before the landlord files an eviction notice against them.”
Jelks during discussions said the purpose of the commission “is truly to offer some local protections to those tenants who may not have the ability to do a legal fight in the court system.” She asked Holland if the commission has the ability to mediate a rent dispute before a matter would be referred to housing courts.
Holland said the commission would have the power to order rents lowered and to allow tenants to file complaints with the city, rather than going through housing courts.
“And it’s not just rent that can be addressed. It’s also the conditions that the properties are in. We do have a housing department in the city that handles those types of complaints now. It would be working closely with the commission on those types of complaints moving forward,” Holland said, describing the commission as a way to issue orders without having to go to court.