By Thomas Breen, New Haven Independent
NEW HAVEN, CT — A state judge has ordered a Blake Street family of renters to leave their apartment by the end of the month — siding with a small local landlord desperate to take back possession of an apartment he hasn’t collected rent on in roughly half a year, and leaving a hardship-beset tenant to scramble to find a new place to live for her and her kids.
State Superior Court Judge Walter Spader, Jr. issued that ruling Tuesday morning at the end of an eviction trial held in New Haven’s housing court on the third floor of the state courthouse at 121 Elm St.
The eviction order marked the culmination of months of frustrations and challenges on both sides in a case that dates back to September.
The case pitted a retired former accountant who has owned and managed a handful of local rental properties for over four decades against a family of tenants who hit one medical and financial problem after another, and who stopped paying the $800 monthly rent for their one-bedroom apartment as the legal matter made its way through court.
“I just want the property back,” the landlord, East Haven resident William Wong, told the judge again and again during Tuesday’s trial. “I just can’t afford this anymore.”
The tenant — who asked not to be named for this story as she looks to find a new place for her and her two kids and her husband to live — asked the judge to give her until the end of March to move out. “My family cannot afford a security deposit to move” right now, she said during the trial. “We had a number of difficulties” over the past year. “I’m trying to do the best that I can.”
The judge ultimately sided with the landlord. He granted Wong’s requested “lapse of time” eviction on the grounds that the tenant’s lease had expired and she no longer had the right to occupy the apartment. He then ordered the tenants to leave their third-floor Blake Street rental by Jan. 31.
Tuesday’s eviction judgment came down against the backdrop ofa sharp statewide increase in eviction lawsuits as many of Connecticut’s pandemic-era renter protections and relief programs expired and as renters reeled from pandemic-induced medical, economic, and mental health challenges; by far the busiest filer of local eviction lawsuits last year was megalandlord Mandy Management.
Lapse Of Time; Injured Child; Lost Job; Car Crash
According to state court records, this eviction case began in September. That’s when Wong first served the top-floor tenants of his three-family Blake Street rental house with a notice to quit by Sept. 30 because the “current month to month lease will not be renewed.” Wong then filed a lapse-of-time eviction lawsuit against those same tenants on Oct. 7, asking the court for immediate possession of the property.
One of the third-floor tenants in this case responded to the lawsuit in an Oct. 20 “answer” in which she pushed back on the eviction and explained the series of tragedies and bad luck that had left her family behind on rent.
She alleged in that answer document that the landlord decided to start evicting her and her family after visiting her property to make a repair and finding a lit candle that he perceived to be a fire hazard because it was near drapes. She said he then told her family to start looking for a new place to live. She replied that they would, but needed a few months to find a new apartment.
“Only a few days later my newborn fell and broke her skull and spent nearly a week in the hospital (where my oldest could not even visit let alone stay),” the tenant wrote. “So in result my spouse lost his job. Then our family was in a car accident totaling our vehicle so we had to get another. In turn causing us to keep having to use the money we were saving to move.”
She said she brought these issues up with her landlord, and struck a tentative deal for him to use the two months’ worth of rent from her security deposit to cover part of what the family owed as she continued to look for a new place to live.
“A Significant Time Without Payment”
Judge Spader began Tuesday’s trial by asking Wong to make his case as to why the eviction should go through, and then the tenant to explain to the court her defense.
The judge also made clear that this summary process lawsuit did not hinge on nonpayment of rent, but rather on “lapse of time” — which is a “strange” legal term that simply means that “there’s no longer a lease in effect.”
“I’ve owned this house for several decades,” Wong told the judge. (City land records show that he bought the three-family property in 1978.)
He said that he started renting out the third-floor apartment to this family of tenants in February 2021. “Since then, I’ve decided I just want the property back,” he said.
Wong said he first told the tenants back in July 2022 that they should start looking for a new apartment. But they didn’t leave. So he began the formal legal process of trying to evict them in September.
“Plus, they haven’t paid rent since July,” he added. The tenant said that she paid July’s rent but stopped in August.
Wong also told the court that he pays for all of the utilities for this apartment. After months and months of covering the gas and electric bills and not receiving rent, he just couldn’t keep stomaching all these costs, he said. “I just want my apartment back.”
During her time to address the judge on Tuesday, the tenant said that the landlord did indeed tell her family back in July to start looking for a new apartment after he found the lit candle, which he “deemed a fire safety hazard.”
“I didn’t know if he was blowing smoke or not,” the tenant said about the landlord’s informal move-out order. “We expressed to Mr. Wong that we couldn’t afford to move right now.” She repeated that they struck an agreement for him to use their security deposit to cover two months’ worth of rent.
The tenant told the judge that she already has two children, and is pregnant with a third. She said her husband has “finally got a steady job” after a stint of unemployment. She said that she only stopped paying rent because she didn’t understand what her legal rental obligations were as the eviction proceeding stretched on in court. And she said that she has proposed a back-rent-catchup plan to the landlord that would see her pay him $400 per week to make up for the $2,400 in rent she owes from September, October and November.
“Our difficulties are not his fault,” the tenant said about the series of medical and health issues that hurt her family’s finances. She said that, before this eviction matter, “we never had any issues” with the landlord. “I’m just asking for a couple more months” — ideally until the end of March after her family gets their federal tax refund — to find a new apartment for her family.
The monthly rent for this apartment is $800? the judge asked Wong.
That’s right, the landlord replied. But “this is not even about the rent. I just want my apartment back.” If the judge gives the tenants until the end of March and if their tax refund is delayed, he said, then the tenants will likely ask for more time until they have to move out.
He repeated that he first told the tenants they had to go in July, and then began the formal eviction proceeding in September. While he said he hasn’t received rent since July, even if that month is contested, that’s still six months’ worth of rent starting in August that he has not been paid.
“I think they’ve had more than enough time” to find a new apartment, he said. “I think they can afford a new apartment.”
Before handing down his decision, the judge said that, while a lapse-of-time eviction lawsuit does not hinge on whether or not a tenant has been paying rent, the court can take that into consideration when weighing the equities of the matter.
He added that the tenants appear to have begun their withholding of rent by August at the latest — before Wong began formal eviction proceedings in September. That only bolsters the credibility of the landlord and his case, the judge said. “That’s still a significant time without payment,” he said.
If the tenant can afford to pay $400 a week as part of a proposed rent-catchup plan that the landlord appears to have turned down, Spader concluded, then the tenant can likely afford the costs of finding and moving to a new apartment.
With that, he granted the lapse-of-time eviction “with a final stay of Jan. 31.”
Landlord: “It’s A Lot Of Stress.” Tenant: “Doing The Best I Can”
After Spader handed down his eviction ruling, the Independent caught up with Wong in person and the tenant over the phone to get their takes on how this case shook out.
“It’s reasonable,” Wong said about the judge’s ruling during an interview outside of the third-floor housing court. “This has been going on for seven months.”
He said he’s happy with the Jan. 31 move-out date and with the court process as a whole, even though it was “long” and “drawn out.” He also said that he was looking forward to these current tenants moving out because of noise complaints he had received about them, and because of how frequently they called the police over matters like the dispute over the lit candle in the apartment.
“It’s a lot of stress,” Wong said about not receiving rent for half a year.
A retired accountant now in his 70s, Wong said he’s been a landlord in New Haven ever since he graduated college more than four-and-a-half decades ago.
He said he currently owns only seven apartments in New Haven, and that he takes pride in building good relationships with tenants and in never raising the rent until a tenant moves out.
“This comes with the territory” of being a landlord, he said about having to bring a tenant to eviction court. While this isn’t the first time he’s filed an eviction lawsuit against a tenant, he said, this is the first time he’s ever had to see it through to completion in the form of getting a judge’s move-out order.
What are some of the biggest changes he’s seen in New Haven’s housing market during his four-plus decades owning and renting out apartments?
At the top of the list is just how much rents have risen, he said. He pointed to the $800 monthly rent he has charged for the one-bedroom Blake Street apartment at the center of this case. “That’s below market” now, he said. “I think that’s a really great rent. I haven’t raised the rent in years.”
Another big change: how tenants pay rent. For decades, he said, he was used to collecting monthly rental checks in person, on paper. In the past year or so, he said, he has had to get on digital payment programs like Cash App and Paypal and Venmo to collect rents from tenants who prefer to pay digitally.
Wong recalled fondly how he lived in the second-floor apartment of that very Blake Street multifamily home soon after he bought it in 1978. That was a great way to not pay rent, he said about buying and owning and renting out other apartments in the building. He said he built up his small landlord practice while working a full-time job as an accountant during the week and part-time at his uncle’s restaurant on weekends.
He said he has received a number of cold calls from out-of-town investors in recent years who were looking to buy up his properties for what strikes him as way more money than what they’re worth. So far, he has turned them all down.
Yes, the few properties he owns do turn out a small profit. But that’s not the main reason he has continued to be a landlord even into his retirement.
As he tells his friends and other people seeking work-life advice, he said, “You have to have a reason to get up in the morning.”
The tenant whom the judge ruled against on Tuesday, meanwhile, grieved the outcome not by heading home — but by driving over to Evergreen Cemetery, finding a peaceful place to park, and crying in her car.
“I’m pretty screwed,” she told the Independent over the phone. “I don’t agree” with the judge’s Jan. 31 move-out decision. She said that she has called the state’s housing-support hotline at 211, and is desperately trying to find a new place to live, as well as some help covering the security deposit and initial rent.
“It’s not my landlord’s fault that I’ve gone through such hardships,” she repeated as she described her child’s serious injury and the family’s car crash last year. “I just have really shitty, bad luck.” She also expressed her frustrations with what she described as a lack of timely repairs to the apartment.
“I’ve been doing the best I can,” the tenant said. Now, hit with an eviction, she’s got yet another hurdle to clear as she tries to find a safe, affordable place for her family to live in next.
See below for other recent stories about New Haven eviction cases:
• Mandy Leads Pack In Eviction Filings
• Eviction “Answers” Reveal Renters’ Struggles
• Eviction Suit Caps Tenant’s Tough Run
• Investor Skips Hello, Starts Evictions
• Eviction Deal Drops $1 Ruling Appeal
• Judge’s $1 Award Tests Eviction Rule
• Court Case Q: Which “Nuisances” Merit Eviction?
• “Or” Evictions OK’d
• Fair Rent: Dog’ll Cost You $150
• Rent Trumps Repairs In Elliot Street Eviction
• Though Sympathetic, Judge Blocks Eviction
• Family Feuds Fill Eviction Court
• Rent Help Winds Down. What’s Next?
• Eviction Withdrawn After Rent Catch-up
• Hill Landlord Prevails In“Lapse” Eviction
• Landlord Thwarted 2nd Time On Eviction
• Church Evicting Parishioner
• Hard-Luck Tenant Hustles To Stay Put
• Eviction Of Hospitalized Tenant, 74, Upheld
•Judge Pauses Eviction Amid Rent-Relief Qs
• Amid Rise In “Lapse-of-Time” Evictions, Tenant Wins 3‑Month Stay
• Leaky Ceiling, Rent Dispute Spark Eviction Case
The New Haven Independent is a not-for-profit public-interest daily news site founded in 2005.
By Thomas Breen, New Haven Independent