A recent landlord-tenant dispute in Hartford Housing Court shines a light on a simmering problem
April 27, 2010
Reggie Stephens and his brother Curley went the winter without heat in their apartment at 18 Enfield St. in Hartford’s North End, because, they say, their landlord, Pamela Melusky, failed to provide heating oil.
Reggie Stephens sued Melusky over the issue, and in a decision last September, Judge Robert Gilligan of the Hartford Housing Court found in his favor, ruling that the defendant, Atera Enterprises, LLC — the limited liability corporation through which Melusky owned the property — “had the duty to provide heat to the dwelling unit and failed to perform its statutory duty.”
The details of the case illustrate the destructive forces at play in Hartford’s housing market that threaten to continue the slide of the city’s properties into decay. And depending on who you believe, either tenants or landlords are getting away with murder in the city.
At a hearing in October 2009, Judge Gilligan found, based on the testimony of a city housing code inspector, that Atera failed to do its duty to provide heat, and awarded money damages to Stephens, giving him $1,130 of the $3,230 in rent he paid into the court at a weekly rate of $85 during the course of the action. The balance of $2,100 went to Melusky.
Melusky had until Nov. 13, 2009, to get the heat turned on. On the 13th, her attorney filed for an extension to comply with the order, which was granted. The next hearing came on Jan. 6, 2010, when the housing code inspector testified that “as a result of some miscommunication” she inspected for electricity service, not heat, and couldn’t say whether there was heat in Stephens’ unit on the first floor.
Another inspection was scheduled for Feb. 23, and at a March 9 hearing, Judge Gilligan heard in a report from a housing specialist connected to the court that the inspection had taken place, and that the “new owner” of the property was there along with an attorney for Melusky and two city inspectors. Unfortunately, the oil tank was dry and “it was not possible to determine whether the furnace was functional.”
At this point, Melusky’s attorney moved to dismiss the action because she had sold the property on Dec. 4, 2009, was no longer the owner, and therefore was no longer subject to the requirement to provide heat. Melusky’s attorney also submitted a fuel oil bill “purporting to show that seventy-five gallons of fuel oil was delivered to the premises on November 2, 2009,” before she sold the property, according to a memorandum written by Judge Gilligan.
Judge Gilligan found that neither selling the property nor submitting a fuel bill from last November was enough to let Melusky off the hook regarding her statutory obligation to provide heat, so he awarded further damages to Stephens, ordering that he receive the $1,870 in rent he had paid into the court through March 19, 2010.
“The court has found that the plaintiff’s unit has been without heat throughout the cold weather heating season and no evidence of compliance with the court’s orders has been submitted by the landlord,” wrote Gilligan in the memorandum.
At this point, Stephens’ action was dismissed. Unfortunately, but perhaps not unexpectedly, Gilligan satisfied neither side with his handling of the case.
The city of Hartford did not respond to numerous calls for comment on the Stephens case.
Curley Stephens — whom Pamela Melusky accuses of squatting in his brother’s apartment without paying rent — says the court should not have awarded any money to Melusky, and that his brother Reggie should have received all of the rent money he paid into the court as damages for enduring the winter using small electric heaters. In fact, his brother is currently suing Melusky in housing court for $5,000.
But more than that, Curley Stephens blames the city for failing to aggressively enforce the laws governing living conditions in rental properties. He says what he alleges are the abusive practices of landlords like Melusky are widespread throughout the city, taking advantage of people coming out of homeless shelters, for example, who are desperate for a place to stay.
“This is their bread and butter, they prey on people who are poor, minority and uneducated,” says Stephens.
Melusky, who was lauded in 2007 for restoring a multi-family unit at 164 Babcock St., receiving an award from the Hartford Preservation Alliance, says she and her husband Robert are through investing in Hartford, because the housing court makes it impossible to evict tenants who aren’t paying their rent.
Robert Melusky calls Judge Gilligan’s rulings in the Stephens case “absolutely bizarre,” given what Melusky alleges were the circumstances regarding Reggie Stephens and his claim.
“[Reggie Stephens] agreed to sign a lease and then he ducked the property manager and never signed the lease,” says Melusky. “Before that he was squatting in an apartment across the hall. The judge ruled that because he did not have a lease and did not have access to the oil burner to repair it, he should not have to pay for heat.”
It was the tenants’ responsibility to buy heating oil, according to Melusky, who says each apartment on the bottom floor of the building, where the Stephens brothers are still living, has its own oil tank and burner.
But that was never shown in court, and Judge Gilligan found that because the available evidence “clearly established that the furnace which furnishes heat to the dwelling unit was not in the exclusive control of the plaintiff or even accessible by the plaintiff,” Melusky, not Stephens, was responsible for providing heat.
Robert Melusky sees a larger agenda at play for what he believes is the unfair treatment of landlords in Hartford.
“What people don’t realize is the city of Hartford doesn’t want to have a lot of people thrown on the streets for nonpayment of rent,” says Melusky. “But they’re killing the Hartford housing stock. A building with three nonpaying tenants is not making money.”