Hartford's La Paloma Sabanera was a one-of-a-kind community-centered coffeehouse at 405 Capitol Ave., but the circumstances around its recent closure were anything but unique. Hartford and cities nationwide have their share of landlords — slumlord, deadbeat, absentee or just stubborn — who make being a commercial tenant next to impossible.
It is no secret that La Paloma was on a block still "in transition." The building's owner has not been selective about tenants, just so long as they pay. The loitering, along with public drug use and sales, have not created a welcoming environment for customers. When I brought these issues to the landlord's attention, he claimed that he was unaware of any problems. In the five years that I leased, I saw the building owner three times. Despite the ongoing problems, he wanted to raise the rent if I renewed the lease.
Hartford's Department of Development Services has been helpful since I announced my closing. They were willing to help me to relocate in Hartford, but unless I own the building, I could almost be guaranteed the same situation in a different spot.
I am not alone in dealing with difficult landlords. For example, a Hartford resident interested in opening a business told me that he searched for a location with no success. He looked at a spot that has been vacant for nine years — yet the landlord would not negotiate. Another told me of making repeated calls to set up an appointment to see a property, with no luck. Hartford has a 40 percent vacancy rate, but you would think it was 4 percent.
We need to have a conversation about how to change this.
The standard ways of fighting back include withholding rent, forcing the landlord to struggle to evict and going to court. Sometimes, the landlord's rental license can be revoked, but this would also mean that tenants would have to vacate. There are creative tactics used in places such as New York City, where the Public Advocate Office publishes a watch list of the city's worst landlords. For those who care about their reputation, this public shaming could affect how they manage their properties. If nothing else, it is a tool that prospective tenants could use for investigating potentially dire circumstances before being bound by a lease.
Two years ago, Boston took another approach to a problem landlord. In just over one year, a property in Roxbury accumulated 105 calls-for-service, along with various code violations. The police took several actions including installing a large light-up sign with the words "problem property." Such a measure adopted in Hartford on a mixed-use building would no doubt have some negative impact on business, yet it shows there are creative ways of managing quality of life issues.
Hartford has an anti-blight ordinance on the books. Perhaps buildings that are vacant for a certain period can be labeled blighted. Landlords who refuse to lease out commercial or residential properties so they can claim tax write-offs should have to pay fines to address the issues that come with vacant properties. In some towns, buildings that accumulate police calls are fined after a certain number of calls.
At La Paloma, we had several police calls during the past five years, but very few were for my coffeehouse. Rather, police responded to situations in the other commercial businesses or the residential units. Although this negatively impacted my business, the landlord never addressed these issues and they continue to this day. As taxpayers, we pay for these additional services due to neglectful landlords. They should be held accountable for the problems their buildings create.
But why must it come to this? What is being done to prevent landlords from racking up violations? What supports existing small businesses so that we can focus on our products and service, not on trying to fix problems landlords create by neglecting their buildings? How can Hartford make this an easier city in which to open a business and maintain it successfully?
I am proud of what La Paloma accomplished under difficult circumstances. We grew our business despite all these problems. But let's resolve these issues so that a deserving community can maintain successful businesses.
Virginia Iacobucci of Hartford was the owner of La Paloma Sabanera Coffee House on Capitol Avenue.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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