Before the eviction notice, Robert Johnson, a 94-year-old World War II veteran, thought he had been a model tenant in his Section 8 apartment.
He pays rent on time and speaks softly. Even as roaches congregated near the fridge, and a mouse trap sat near his feet, and the building elevator remained broken for weeks — a lonely ordeal for a senior with a pacemaker — Johnson said of his home, “I like it all right.”
This elderly veteran does not look for trouble. But indignities have come knocking: In Hartford, he is caught in a web of housing code violations that have drawn the attention of city and federal housing officials.
The problems in Johnson’s government-subsidized unit are noted in inspection reports and are visible to the naked eye. An electrical outlet in his living room is blackened and burnt after an apparent spark. A metal strip that separates carpet from the kitchen linoleum is loose, a tripping hazard for a man who shuffles when he walks. The bathroom exhaust fan hangs an inch from the ceiling, and above his shower is a sizable square hole that exposes the pipes. Black, greenish residue is present.
Still, landlord repairs have not come easily and the complaints about the building are nothing new. City housing records from the past decade include tenant complaints about rodents and bedbug infestations, sewage backups that flooded apartments, a broken intercom system, and damaged ceilings inside the four-story brick building built in 1951.
The conditions in Johnson’s unit were poor enough that the Hartford Housing Authority recently suspended Section 8 payments for the apartment after repairs went unfixed by the building’s property owner, New York-based Webster Garden LLC.
In a twist, Johnson later received an eviction notice from Webster Garden requesting that he leave the premises by Nov. 13.
After The Courant began inquiring into Johnson’s situation, housing officials with the city, the Hartford Housing Authority, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have gone into overdrive to improve his prospects, communicating with the landlord about repairs, scheduling new inspections and trying to guide Johnson to another, bigger apartment.
“The last thing we want is for a 94-year-old veteran to be homeless,” said Rhonda Siciliano, a HUD spokesperson.
Right, said Floyd Johnson, who lives with his father and has been reporting housing code violations in the apartment for more than a year. He argues that the city could have done more for his father, and other vulnerable tenants, before it got to this point.
‘Down You Go’
A month ago, a city housing code enforcement report noted that a woman “fell out” of the building’s lone elevator and needed surgery. The elevator at the building was not working at the time of the report and had been unreliable since at least 2016.
Robert Johnson struggled when the elevator was out of service for several weeks. Along with the pacemaker, his sense of balance is a concern. He has fallen over and needs a cane these days. But leaving for appointments or grocery shopping meant managing a flight of stairs.
“It ain’t easy,” Johnson said on Oct. 18, shortly before the elevator was fixed. “And coming down there’s more danger. You could slip … and down you go. It’s dangerous.”
The hole in the shower ceiling stemmed from an upstairs leak that was reported to the city last year, according to official inspection records obtained by The Courant. Webster Garden LLC received notice of violations in April and as recently as Oct. 16 to fix the water damage or face legal action.
A lawyer for the landlord did not return a request for comment, and a woman who answered the phone at the residence of Mayer Friedman, the New York man who is listed in state corporation records as Webster Garden’s principal, said he was unavailable to talk.
Recently, Eli Spitzer, who is identified as a Webster Garden owner in a Hartford housing report, said he isn’t involved in the daily operations. But like Israel Singer, the building’s property manager, Spitzer blamed the veteran’s son, Floyd, for stirring controversy and accused him of interfering with attempts to make repairs.
“He makes problems … . I wish everything could be OK,” said Spitzer, who referred to the elder Johnson as “a nice man.”
Hartford housing code enforcement and building inspectors have visited Johnson’s apartment at least 11 times in the past two years to respond to complaints, said Elda Sinani, the city’s director of licenses and inspections. The city’s approach has been to try to work with landlords before resorting to housing court, where offenders could face fines and jail time.
“Although we have had some success in gaining cooperation from Johnson’s landlord in making necessary repairs, we understand that there are continuing problems at Johnson’s residence,” Sinani said in an email. In light of the Courant’s inquiries, Sinani said she has called for a fresh review of Johnson’s apartment and has met with property management “to see if we can resolve the matter amicably.”
Singer said that he met with city officials recently. He described the tenant complaints as overblown, defended the residence as “a nice building,” and said he was upset to learn that the elevator was not working and called in a repairman for an emergency fix. Singer expressed frustration that the issues with Johnson were costing “thousands” of dollars in repairs and lost Section 8 payments.
Affordable housing apartments must pass annual health and safety inspections to continue to receive the federal subsidy. Johnson’s apartment failed inspection on July 24, according to the Hartford Housing Authority, the local Section 8 administrator.
Webster Garden was given 30 days to bring the unit up to standards. On Sept. 1, the authority suspended payments for the apartment after another failed inspection. Meanwhile, Johnson continued to pay his modest share of the rent: Just under $200 a month with his Social Security income, family said.
When Johnson received his eviction notice after being a tenant for 14 years, the timing struck David Pels, a lawyer with Greater Hartford Legal Aid, as “retaliatory.”
“It certainly isn’t unusual to find tenants living in apartments that are not well-maintained,” said Pels, who has specialized in housing issues since 1974 and recently reviewed records in the case. But Johnson’s situation brings an extra layer of scrutiny.
Pels pointed to a state law on tenants’ rights that prohibits landlords from taking a retaliatory action, such as starting eviction proceedings, within six months of a tenant reporting poor housing conditions in good faith to a local authority, or an agency issuing an order to make repairs.
Floyd Johnson thinks his father deserves better. Being a fuze setter in World War II — manually preparing projectiles for launch — took Robert Johnson to Italy during battles in the North Apennines and the Po Valley offensive.
He was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army as a private first class in November 1945, two months after the war ended, according to the tattered military transcript that the family keeps in an envelope.
In 1950, Johnson moved to Hartford and found work where he could.
Now a widower, Johnson has made room in the one-bedroom apartment for his daughter-in-law, who stays at home with him full time, and son Floyd, an ex-gang member who runs an anti-violence youth program after spending much of his life in and out of jail.
“I don’t want to live by myself,” Robert Johnson said. “If I live by myself and something happens to me, then what am I going to do?”
The Hartford Housing Authority has approved Johnson for a two-bedroom Section 8 voucher and has offered leads, according to HUD.
But it hasn’t been easy finding a new home that checks all the boxes for his dad, Floyd Johnson said. Money is tight. Ideally, they could move into a ground-level apartment with heat and hot water included in the rent. A HUD representative said the elder Johnson would likely be eligible for a veteran assistance program to help with the security deposit for a new apartment.
Before reaching out to The Courant, the son said he visited Hartford city officials, contacted U.S. senators’ offices, dialed social-service hotlines and feels like he initially got bounced around when trying to advocate for his father and other residents in the building.
During recent visits to the building, where smoke detectors chirp in the hallways, other tenants seemed pleased that a reporter was looking into housing conditions — but were hesitant to give their names.
“They feel they don’t have a place to go if they complain,” Floyd Johnson said.
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