Fair Rent Commission Conducts First Meeting
Rising rents imposed by a new corporate owner of a senior's only mobile home park on Route 81 are highlighting a national trend that has many tenants anxious about their future housing situation. Residents of the Beechwood complex are echoing the criticism of other tenants from across the state and the country who feel they are being forced to pay rent increases. At the same time, vital services, once included in their rentals, are being cut.
According to residents, ever since Sun Communities, Inc. purchased the park, the new owners have not been responsive to their concerns, especially street repairs, tree trimming, and septic cleaning.
State Senator Christine Cohen and newly elected State Representative Chris Aniskovich both attended a forum at Beechwood Park last week that included a number of other residents who live in Sun Communities from across Connecticut, including Oxford and Beacon Falls, who all relate the same complaints and concerns.
Sen. Cohen said there is legislation before the General Assembly that would seek to address tenant concerns, but ultimately no law can prevent the implementation of some form of a rent increase by a landlord or owner.
"As promised, we submitted a piece of legislation that would provide rent stabilization for mobile manufactured home communities. Specifically, these communities, where they are owned by another entity, and really beholden to these extreme rental hikes. The idea would be to model the New York legislation…that is a 2.5 percent cap," Cohen said. "That is certainly a starting point for the legislative process."
The bill, SB37, is a bi-partisan effort, and Cohen said that she expects it to have a lot of opposition, particularly from the owners of mobile home communities.
"That is going to be tough because they have money to spend to fight against this process," said Cohen. "We're going to need to have all hands on deck."
Cohen and residents at the meeting urged those affected to make a presence in Hartford when this legislation is presented and debated. Two separate bills are being proposed in Hartford that address the problem.
Aniskovich said the situation has reached the point where some residents simply don't have the ability to remain in their homes any longer.
"The frustration of the people here is that they are on fixed incomes, and they are struggling to continue to keep up with the pace of these increases," said Aniskovich. "It is very difficult for them. Some have to go out and get a part-time job, which, as a senior, isn't easy. The two pieces of legislation being proposed are certainly a potential remedy, but we have to get them passed."
Though the rent increases, up to $35 a month, may appear modest, seniors on fixed incomes don't have the disposable income to keep up, according to residents.
Requests for comment from Sun Communities did not receive a response, but their website described the company as "…a fully integrated real estate investment trust, which together with its affiliates and predecessors, has been in the business of acquiring, operating, developing and expanding manufactured home and RV communities since 1975. As the nation's premier owner and operator, we pride ourselves in our commitment to our residents and guests, bringing them outstanding amenities, value, and customer service consistent with the Sun Communities experience."
Bill Joyce, a four-year resident at Beechwood Park in Killingworth, said he and his neighbors have seen a steady decline in services provided by the new owners, which compounds the rent increase issue.
"I want to make it clear — everyone has the right to make a profit, but Sun Corporation came in and raised the rents a lot and then took away the services," said Joyce. "The previous owners were very good corporate citizens. They did a great job here; they had a lot of pride. They provided a lot of services from road paving to retaining walls, to taking care of tree trimming, to trimming bushes, to cleaning the septic tanks every three years, and they only raised our fees very, very little. And they made money."
Joyce continued, adding that the Park used to have full-time office support staff and a maintenance crew. Those staff positions have been reduced.
"We used to have a full-time secretary in the office; now we have a person who only comes in once every three days. They took away the maintenance crew; there's only one full-time maintenance guy now. They stopped pumping septic every three years; now it's every five, and people's systems are backing up and having problems," Joyce said. "The people who live here are hard-working people who paid their taxes and did what society asked them to do, and now they can't afford to stay here. Not everyone can get a job; what do people in their 8os do? I know people who are a year or two away from living in their cars."
In documents provided by Beechwood Park residents, their rents increases were modest the first two years under the Sun Communities, Inc. ownership in 2020-'21. Still, those rates jumped significantly in 2022 and now in 2023, 4.8 percent and 7.3 percent, respectively, translating to a $35 increase for 2023. That translates to an increase of $420 annually (7.3 percent increase = $35 a month x 12 months), and for anyone on a fixed income, that is a gap many simply cannot afford.
Residents have urged town officials for much of the last year to create a Fair Rent Commission (FRC), and that entity was created and empaneled in December 2022. The FRC had its first meeting last week to discuss the issue. First Selectwoman Nancy Gorski said the situation is a difficult one for all parties.
"Jackie [Vece] and Bill [Joyce] both lobbied hard with me to have a Fair Rent Commission put in place (both are residents at beechwood)," said Gorski. "Sun Corp, at one point, even pushed back on me about having one. I told them it's not all about you, Sun; we have a lot of renters in town. So, all I can say is that the Commission is a tool in our box that could use for these individuals who are renters. I think the Fair Rent Commission could work well as a mediator."
Gorski said a rent cap enacted by Hartford would be the best solution, as it would cover all renters no matter where they reside.
"It is going to be hard for an individual to fight back against these big corporations. It is going to be challenging. How are people going to be able to keep up with these costs as they age? Especially at a time when fuel costs are up, food costs are up, along with everything else," said Gorski.