Landlord Joseph Handy of Sisters and Brothers Investment Group broke his silence about the emergency health order issued earlier this year regarding a crop of cabins he manages in Colchester. He alleges that the town public health officer “made up” the report, issuing it based on prejudice against his family rather than on facts.
“No complaints until the health officer came. Absolutely no complaints. Nothing,” he told the Sun earlier this September while walking around the cabins. “This is discrimination. They just don’t like me. Always hated the Handy’s. From day one.”
Handy argued that the town has tied his hands by not signing off on his septic permits faster and forcing him to comply with the health order.
“I just want to resolve the problem and go forward. I just want to get the repairs, do my thing, and that’s it,” he said.
That is at least one thing the two parties can agree on—a hasty resolution to the health order.
According to the town public health officer Denise Johnson-Terk and the director of planning and zoning Sarah Hadd, a lawsuit is the only avenue the town has left to enforce the health order. “It’s not something we take lightly,” said Hadd.
Johnson-Trek agreed, noting that the first step after receiving a complaint is to try to get “voluntary compliance” with the landlord or tenant. “I would have to say that me calling a landlord is usually enough to get them to do the work the tenant has been complaining about. Or simply asking the tenant to call the landlord and say you spoke to the town public health officer—even that’s enough to get somebody started. The more severe stuff requires an emergency health order,” she clarified.
Less than ten emergency health orders are issued a year in Colchester, according to the government officials. “We try to work very hard with property owners to resolve situations, find out what’s going on and how we can fix it without being unduly litigious,” said Hadd.
In the case at Sharrow Circle, the town received an anonymous complaint in April of this year regarding rotting floors. Since the complaint was made anonymously, the public health officer was required to inspect all of the cabins. Once she had access to the building, Johnson-Terk said that she was required within her duties to fill out a comprehensive 12 page checklist form. According to the inspection report, town officials found mold, broken ovens and thermostats, a stove that gave off electrical shocks, and an exposed septic tank, among other major health risks.
While Handy told the Sun that many of those allegations are false, or due to residents’ negligence rather than his, Hadd later countered that, “He had an ability to contest issues in the health order but did not. So if he believed they were false in any way shape or form, he should have availed himself to that opportunity.”
After the April inspection and issuance of the health order, Handy requested two continuances for the following hearing—May 28 and June 25, per the report. A third and final hearing date was set for July 9 in a letter, noting that the hearing could not be further continued. However, Handy did not attend the hearing. He told the Sun that he did not receive the letter.
“I’m trying to do the right thing here, give [people] affordable housing,” Handy said.
In his experience, his tenants have nowhere else to go. When asked if he thinks that the reason why he had allegedly not heard of any complaints before the health order issuance, could be because the tenants are afraid of being evicted, Handy shrugged. “I can’t read their minds. Maybe they feel like if they don’t bother me, I won’t charge them more or something,” he said.
This begs the question: should residents have to trade a healthy living environment in return for affordable housing?
Hadd said that the Superior Court’s next step is to notify parties and schedule a trial.