NORWALK, Conn. – A long-awaited ordinance to address blight in Norwalk is up for discussion this week.
The blight ordinance, as well as a landlord registration ordinance, are the topics of an Ordinance Committee public hearing set for 7 p.m. Tuesday in council chambers at City Hall.
Ordinance Committee Chairman Michael Geake (U-District B) said the blight ordinance is “small,” but a beginning.
“Through many, many council sessions, we have been trying to get a blight ordinance,” Geake told the Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations recently. “All the previous sessions we couldn’t come up with one. We needed to come up with one that would actually pass. We decided we would start small and, if need be, add on as we went along, not have the term end and not come up with one.”
Nevertheless, some see problems with the definitions in the blight ordinance, including those addressing buildings where crime has happened, low-income and elderly residents and people with disabilities.
One of the definitions of blight in the ordinance, attached below, is “property has become a place where criminal activity has taken place as documented by police reports.”
Diane Witt said that clause needs refining.
“Unless you put ‘frequently occurred,’ this would probably qualify for every other house in my neighborhood,” she said, at the CNNA meeting. “It leaves us hanging as to how much police activity are you requiring?”
Geake said city officials wouldn’t apply that standard unless there is frequent crime.
“Our intent is not to use this as a sword,” he said. “Our intent is to get at that small percentage of properties that are truly a problem, and we all know which ones they are.”
Witt was also concerned about the language regarding elderly property owners, a person more than 65 years old, “who doesn’t have a household member capable of providing the maintenance necessary to abate blight.”
Geake said elderly residents will be given additional time, and volunteers with Keep Norwalk Beautiful would pitch in to help them, but Witt said that language isn’t in the ordinance.
Geake said there’s a reason for that.
“The lawyer was concerned about putting something in there that would imply unequal treatment because that would risk having the ordinance thrown out of court,” he said.
The passage regarding disabled people concerns Fair Housing Officer Margaret Suib, who wasn’t at the CNNA meeting.
Disabled people are defined in the ordinance by the American Disabilities Act of 1990, which she said is outdated. It also says disabled people who have someone in the household who can do the maintenance will not be exempt from enforcement.
“That doesn’t make sense – you have a disability, you have a disability, regardless of who else might live in the house,” Suib said. “It should be the definition of what’s a disabled individual, so there’s a lot of problems with this.”
She also questions the ordinance’s definition of low income.
“I’ve never seen anything defined in Norwalk by the state of Connecticut’s elderly tax relief,” she said. “Usually we use the HUD (Housing and Urban Development) definition of low-income. I bet that (the state formula) is really low, way lower than HUD’s definition.”
There won’t be a vote on either ordinance after the public hearing, Geake said.
The landlord registration ordinance was drawn so the city can find negligent landlords, Geake said.
“Some of the landlords are very clever and will list their address as the rental property. In some cases the city has taken literally years to get papers served,” he said. “Per diem fines are being accrued, they are into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and they just lapse because they weren’t properly served. The purpose is to actually serve papers on the absentee landlords. Period, the end.”
There may be another ordinance coming, he said.
“We require an appeals board,” he said. “We have discussed having the fair rent commission do double duty as the blight appeals board, sort of like the Zoning Commission handles the aquifer.”
That would negate the problem of coming up with a new board.
“Fair rent already handles legal hearings that get appealed directly to the court,” he said. “They’re all set up and ready to do this. If we brought in seven newbies, we’re asking for trouble.”