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Landlords argue state mandates, closing of courts overlook their plight

New London  — With millions of Americans out of work and in dire financial situations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic many people are missing rent payments.

And while local landlords say they are sympathetic to hardships faced by their tenants, there is also growing frustration over what some landlords say are state orders that strip them of the ability to make a living.

Representatives from the City Center District, a collection of about 160 New London downtown property owners, met earlier this month with the local legislative delegation and this week drafted a letter calling for creation of a fund to provide direct economic relief to landlords. The letter also asks Gov. Ned Lamont to not extend a moratorium on evictions beyond Aug. 25 and for a reopening of housing courts.

New London property owner and landlord Bill Cornish said the halt to the eviction process has himself and others concerned about just how long tenants will be allowed to remain rent-free. Cornish said he had two tenants in the eviction process when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and now has others who have stopped paying rent.

He and others argue that the state assistance programs are set up to provide for people with money to pay rent but that money is not finding its way to landlords. He said it amounts to abuse of the system.

"(Lamont) has given them a giant loophole," Cornish argues.

Cornish said he has about 30 units but they're half empty because he's stopped taking on renters out of concern it will be to someone who cannot pay their bills. He said the tenants will eventually suffer when landlords like himself are forced to impose stricter rules, such as increased security deposits to account for past losses.

"I'm not going to take just anybody until this gets straightened out," he said. "I have no apprehension about suing the governor. He has no consideration for people like me working every day to make a living. He thinks if you're a landlord you must be wealthy."

Meanwhile, Cornish said, he is paying a mortgage, a roughly $170,000 tax bill and other costs associated with maintaining rental properties. He says it's unsustainable.

Likewise, local business owner and landlord Barbara Neff said she had started the eviction process at the beginning of the year for one tenant who stopped paying rent. That person has been living in an apartment rent-free ever since without explanation despite her previous efforts to keep him housed.

"It's easy to target the landlords and say tenants don't have to pay their rent," said CCD Chairman Frank McLaughlin. "But here we have tenants getting assistance to pay rent. How can we pay our mortgages, our taxes and insurance without rental income?"

Like others, McLaughlin was able to obtain mortgage forbearance but that only means he has longer to pay.

The CCD's letter to legislators says that one recurring problem is "the enacted policies send the message to tenants that they no longer need to pay rent."

"While rent is normally applied by a landlord to pay their mortgage(s), it is also used for taxes, insurance, maintenance and upkeep. Policies that disrupt the normal receipt of rent by landlords may lead to catastrophic long term consequences, including deteriorating property conditions, safety concerns as well as the landlords risk of defaulting upon its financial obligations," the letter reads.

CCD member and attorney Jason Burdick, who is not a landlord himself, said the state's $10 million rental assistance program, administered through the state Department of Housing, is supposed to provide payments to landlords though the priority is on lower-income households who have been denied unemployment compensation. That fund does not apply to most of the area landlords, he said.

Burdick said he sees the downtown suffering as a result of a lack of available funding for upkeep of properties.

"If you're not going to give economic relief and there is no access to court, it's really a tough place for landlords to be in," Burdick said.

A July 1 notice from the state Judicial Branch says, "Pursuant to the Governor's Executive Order extending the residential eviction moratorium to Aug. 25, residential eviction matters are not currently being processed by the courts." A representative for the state Judicial Branch was not immediately available to comment on when housing courts might reopen or how the courts will be able to deal with the backlog of cases.

Attorney Yona Gregory called that fact "beyond egregious." Gregory, who specializes in eviction cases, said the state has demonstrated an "ineptitude, dysfunction and a disregard for landlords."

She said there are many protections in place for tenants and the state courts are designed to facilitate the eviction process, a process abandoned with the closing of the housing courts.

Gregory said there are numerous situations where landlords are being left to deal with tenants who refuse to leave on their own. She envisions worsening problems.

"There is no way to get someone off your property right now. I completely understand the financial impairments but you've got evictions pending judgments. COVID stopped that process. All of those landlords suffering before (COVID) are now saddled with these people for six months rent free," Gregory said.

She said she has a case pending and ready for judgment that involves a "professional tenant," who moves from place to place not paying rent. That person owes $22,000 for a beach house rental and it's gotten to the point where the owner could lose the property.

The CCD's letter to legislators asks for a "cooperative working relationship that balances both the very real need to offer assistance to tenants while protecting the interests of the landlords who are dependent upon the regular receipt of rental payments."

g.smith@theday.com

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