At the last Board of Selectmen meeting a draft ordinance to establish a Fair Rent Commission in Greenwich was presented by Commissioner of the Human Services Demetria Nelson and assistant town attorney Laura McGeachy.
In Connecticut, legislation passed in 2022 requires towns with over 25,000 residents to establish a Fair Rent Commission by July 1, 2023.
In Greenwich, a work group created the draft of the ordinance presented to the Selectmen on May 25.
“When it first was passed, my voiced concern was that the commission be set up with equal representation, so that it wasn’t one-sided or lopsided, and put together hopefully with the intent that this could potentially keep people out of court, to talk it out rather then running into court,” First Selectman Camillo said.
“I think there is good potential here,” Camillo said. “We’d be able to appoint up to five people on this.”
Specifically the draft ordinance says the commission would consist of five members with not more than three from the same political party. At least one of them would be a landlord and one would be a tenant. In addition there would be three alternates. Members would have staggered terms of three years.
The commission would have authority to take complaints, hold hearings, investigate and eliminate excessive rental charges.
They would be able to compel people to attend hearings through subpoenas, administer oaths, and have the power to retain legal counsel for advice.
“We’re not going to be ready for the July date they want, but most towns aren’t,” Camillo said. “The state just wants to know that we are on it, and I think that two people have already come in and asked to be on this commission”
Ms Nelson, who as Director of Human Services would serve as a non-voting ex-officio member of the commission, explained the purpose of the commission was to establish a municipal board with the primary power to prevent rent charges in residential housing that are “so excessive as to be harsh and and unconscionable.”
She said the commission would accept complaints by tenants, review documents and information, determine the complaint outcomes and make sure landlord adheres to any orders.
Ms Nelson said complaints might include excessive rents, health and safety issues or needed repairs that have not been completed.
“In terms of some of the standard outcomes, there are outcomes where we can agree with the tenant’s request,” she said. “We may decide that there will be an incremental increase of the rent, or there are times when the tenant’s request may be denied.”
Ms Nelson said she anticipated she would likely be able to mediate between tenants and landlords to prevent having to convene a commission hearing.
One recommendation of the work group was to consult the Greenwich Association of Realtors and use the MLS to determine the fair market rates.
“This is by no means rent control. That is a taboo word. This is for excessive rent,” Ms McGeachy explained, adding that the starting point for the draft ordinance was a six-page model that the work group then boiled down to four pages.
The ordinance lists factors for the commission to consider, including comparable rents, sanitary conditions, plumbing, facilities, size and number of bedrooms, necessary repairs, landlord’s costs, rate of return, health & safety, “the income of the petitioner and availability of accommodations,” utilities, tenant caused damage, history of rent increases and whether the rent increase would be reinvested in improvements to the rental.
“We know Fairfield County and Greenwich rents are higher than anywhere else in the state due to cost of living,” McGeachy said. However, she noted that rents were not public information as with comparable property sales prices.
“We’re working out an agreement with Greenwich MLS to provide a comparable of some similar rates so that there is some objectivity to it as well, rather than adjudicating between what the tenant says and the landlord says,” she added.
Mr. Camillo asked if a landlord could come to the commission to address non-payment of rent.
“We’ve seen some horror stories where they’re doing damage and refuse to leave. Do those landlords have access to this? Or is their remedy just through the court system?” he asked.
McGeachy said landlords were already able to take tenants to court for eviction and non payment of rent.
“This is just for excessive rents,” McGeachy said. “Tenants don’t have a venue in housing court for that.”
“It’s ‘harsh and unconscionable.’ It’s a pretty high standard of excessive rent,” McGeachy said.
“This is not local government stepping into private lease tenancies between the parties,” she added. “In my opinion it is a balanced ordinance.”
Janet Stone McGuigan said she had brought the Fair Rent Commission agenda item forward.
“I know there has been considerable thought and time put into it by Ms McGeachy, the Legal Department, Demetria, the Dept of Human Services and the the Board of Human Services.”
The ordinance will return to the Selectmen for a vote. From there it would go before the Representative Town Meeting, though it is too late for their June meeting.