NORWALK, Conn. (AP) — The foremost concern of someone facing an eviction is where they’ll live next. Second on that list: the fate of their belongings.
In the throes of an eviction, a struggling tenant may have few places to go and fewer options for removing and storing a lifetime’s worth of personal effects.
Connecticut, however, has one of the nation’s most protective laws regarding possessions abandoned after an eviction: it’s the only state that requires municipalities to store a tenant’s property when they’re forced out of their home.
Norwalk had 54 evictions in fiscal year 2013-2014, 57 evictions in fiscal year 2014-2015 and 63 evictions in fiscal year 2015-2016. And although the current year just started July 1, the city has already been responsible for moving and storing the possessions of at least one Norwalk family.
Many states give landlords the right to sell or discard possessions after a certain amount of time. But here — where landlords have no role in storage — advocates hail third-party warehousing as a rare protection for tenants.
“Protecting the goods of tenants after an eviction and giving them the opportunity to get them back has long been a requirement of municipalities,” said Raphael Podolsky, a staff attorney with the Legal Assistance Resource Center in Hartford.
“For low-income people who don’t have resources — who don’t have a car or place to move — the fact that the municipality holds the property is an important way for them to get it back,” he said, adding that there’s little incentive for landlords to try and reunite evicted tenants with their belongings.
A few states have laws similar to Connecticut’s. In Idaho, the county sheriff’s office is responsible for moving and storing belongings, which if unclaimed can be sold to reimburse the landlord. In North Carolina, an officer removes and stores property at the landlord’s expense. In Massachusetts, a constable removes possessions and brings them to a public storage warehouse, where they will be auctioned after six months.
Although advocates say it’s a valuable service, Connecticut municipalities have fought for years to free themselves from what they see as a costly and burdensome directive to provide evictions storage.
“The towns say this is an unfunded state mandate,” Podolsky said.
In a 2009 testimony to the General Assembly, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities stated, “There is no justifiable reason for towns and cities to be involved in a landlord-tenant issue. Since the state doesn’t have to foot the bill, it has been content to burden communities with the mandate. It’s the kind of mandate that leaves municipal officials flummoxed.”
Tom Closter, director of environmental services at the Norwalk Department of Health, oversees evictions storage and the city’s role in the process. He said the city becomes involved at the end of an eviction, once the case has already gone through housing court. The city works with people afterward to try and get them their things.
In Norwalk, if a tenant can’t take their things, they end up in a storage facility in Stamford, Fitts Moving and Storage located at 415 Fairfield Ave. If unclaimed after 15 days, state law requires cities to conduct an auction, with proceeds covering storage costs. Revenue above that can be claimed by the tenant within 30 days, though Closter said the revenue from an auction rarely covers even a significant portion of the storage fees.
“We’re only required by law to store their things for 15 days,” Closter said. “But we work with people. Our contract with Fitts is that we’ll store items for 30 days and we usually will store things for a few months. If someone calls and says they need more time we try to accommodate that. Obviously we can’t pay to store their stuff forever, but we do our best to help people.”
Closter said the city usually budgets about $50,000 per year to cover the costs of transportation, monthly storage, a storage removal fee, the dumping fee to the city for whatever isn’t sold at auction and auction fees. In the fiscal year 2015-2016 which just ended, the city spent $54,000 on evictions.
Some years the city spends less, sometimes it spends more. When the recession hit in 2008, evictions cost the city $61,000 in fiscal year 2008-2009, and almost $77,000 the next year.
Only 10 to 15 percent of eviction proceedings — usually the most dire cases — result in the removal of the tenant at the end of the process, Podolsky said.
A 2006 survey conducted by Podolsky’s organization showed that 20 percent of people across the state were able to reclaim their possessions from cities for a fee after an eviction. In Norwalk, the city charges $5 per day storage fee to reclaim belongings, which helps offset some of the cost to the city.
The remaining property is put up for auction, though some cities have argued the property is not worth the money to store or try to sell.
“There are kids’ bicycles. There are lamps, furniture,” Podolsky said. “It really does demonstrate that what is removed is not all junk.”
Podolsky notes that municipal sales are not designed to maximize profit. Any proceeds beyond the city’s cost of storage — in Norwalk it ranges from $100 to $500 depending on the amount stored and the length of time — can be claimed by the owner within 30 days. Podolsky said cities can do a better job of generating profit for tenants.
“You may get $100 or less on belongings worth $5,000,” he said.
An eviction can happen to people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, who live in apartments, affordable housing and homes in foreclosure.
“There could be any variety of reasons someone gets evicted,” Closter said. “It can happen to anyone.”
State Rep. Patricia Billie Miller, D-Stamford, said tenants here need protection because, in addition to not paying rent, residents can be evicted if for any reason a landlord decides not to renew a lease.
“One of the worst things in the world is to be evicted,” Miller said. “Sometimes tenants are evicted for matters that aren’t even in their control.”
Connecticut municipalities first became responsible for evictions storage in 1895, with the goal of protecting a tenant’s belongings and preventing confrontations between tenant and landlord.
If municipalities had their way, advocates say, they would have no part in landlord-tenant issues.
“They’ve always wanted to not have this responsibility at all,” Podolsky said. “We’ve fought hard to maintain the towns as a protective entity for the renters.”
Cities achieved their most significant victory to date in 1997 when they were removed entirely from the process of commercial evictions.
They won a smaller battle in 2010, when the General Assembly passed a change to the law no longer requiring cities to transport a person’s possessions from their home to storage. State marshals help to transport property — a cost that landlords can try to recoup later on from tenants.
In 2013, the legislature rejected a move that would have altogether eliminated the municipal role in evictions.
“I understand from the town’s point of view that every dollar is a dollar,” Podolsky said. “But we think this is an important function for municipalities. It’s really a very tiny piece of any municipality’s budget.”
In CCM’s 2009 testimony, municipalities reported paying $17,000 to $70,000 to store and transport items belonging to evicted residents.
The eviction process always begins with a notice to quit, a legal document notifying a tenant they may soon have to leave.
Ellen Bromley, Stamford’s social services coordinator, said even though the notice to quit gives tenants a time frame to move, tenants should know that they do not have to leave right away, and that by staying they trigger court proceedings that can buy them more time.
“The notice to quit can be a scary document, because it basically says to the tenant you no longer have a lease,” she said. “It basically announces the beginning of a lawsuit.”
“We often get calls from people who have gotten a notice to quit and they’re panicked,” Bromley said. In which case she tells them, “No tenant in the state of Connecticut has ever had to move before a judge says you’re evicted. It doesn’t matter if you have a written lease, an oral lease, or if you live with your brother-in-law and he says you have to move.”
Cowan said the city provides resources for tenants who find themselves facing eviction. Often the city will refer them to a shelter or another outside agency.
“I always wish I could catch people before they get to the court stage,” she said. “If you receive a notice, try to talk to the owner or manager. Try to get some more clarity to see if there’s a way to work it out. It doesn’t go away if you don’t show up for court. The process just continues without you.”