By Ken Krayeske • 10:40 AM EST
The green sign of the Green Apple, our newest corner market, reflects in the windows of the storefront abandoned by Companions and Homemakers on the corner of Laurel Street and Farmington Avenue in Hartford.
Home healthcare providers Companions and Homemakers, once hoped to be the stable anchor of the Farmington-Laurel corner, closed its Farmington Avenue location October, 31, 2008.
Perhaps I was distracted by the appearance of a new grocery store, the Green Apple, across the street, but I only noticed Companions and Homemakers left about two weeks ago, when the company marquees disappeared and I saw the ancient sign for the legendary Scolers restaurant reappear on the side of the Willoughby.
The phone line to the Hartford Companions and Homemakers office just rings and rings and rings. Someone answered the line at the Glastonbury office right away. She said she wasn’t sure why they departed.
Companions and Homemakers bravely moved to Farmington Avenue in August 2006. I can hazard a guess as to why it left – an illegal drug market prospers at that corner. All kinds of riffraff hang out there. Plus, the horrible parking on the corner of Farmington and Laurel makes passing tough, as cars idle in the no-parking zone regularly. Employees probably encountered their share of Asylum Hill weirdness, and let's imagine that the owner grew tired of their complaints.
The arrival of a health care facility on the corner signaled a hope for our struggling neighborhood. The one business I don’t want in the neighborhood, the Rent-A-Center, is the only merchant that seems stable outside of the stalwart Chinese food joints, laundromats, bodegas, and our surviving library branch.
The usurial furniture and appliance rental store pays its rent regularly, and we should be thankful for regular tenants that provide jobs for the local economy. Yet this Texas-based corporation is not a good neighbor.
NY Daily News columnist Errol Louis last week created a furor when he revealed how Rent-A-Center preys on the poor. His column from Thanksgiving day, “Rent-A-Scheme milks the poor: Corporation rips off low-income New Yorkers,” led to a protest featuring the likes of Al Sharpton.
Louis, prompted by a Brooklyn minister outraged at the cost of renting a television to watch Barack Obama’s historic election night speech, detailed the specious nature of Rent-A-Center’s business model:
For example, a Whirlpool refrigerator you can buy for $579 at a Best Buy outlet can be ‘rented’ for $14.99 a week from Rent-A-Center - a deal that ends up costing $1,364 after the 91-week contract is completed.
A Toshiba television that retails for $349 is rented for $15.99 a week for 78 weeks for a total cost of $1,247 - a markup of 257% over the true price.
In the Daily News story about the protest, high school students led the charge:
When Niurka Feliz walks by the Rent-A-Center in her Brooklyn neighborhood, she can't help but feel ripped off.
Now she'll be more careful not to enter into an agreement that would have her paying $85 a month for a laptop that costs only slightly more than $340.
Niurka, 16, turned in the laptop and asked how much it would cost her to buy it in payments.
"They told me $5,000," she said. "That's too much."
"It turned out to be really expensive," said Niurka, a high school student. "I thought it was the only way to have a laptop."
Rent-A-Center CEO Mark Speese responded online in a characteristic corporate statement: “Some protesters claim we charge prices that sound unbelievably high – these reports are false. Rent-A-Center discloses all costs and terms up-front, including the cash price, the amount and timing of payments, and the total of payments.”
Speese would be credible but for his $46,650 or so in campaign donations supporting mostly Republican candidates in the 2008 election cycle. Some of Speese’s money went to Democrats like Rep. William Clay (MO), Sen. Mary Landrieu (LA) and Sen. Joseph Biden, according to OpenSecrets.org.
The Rent-A-Center Political Action Committee received $5,000 from Speese. As of now, the RAC PAC spent $68,950 on the 2008 election, mostly on Republicans and some Democrats, and Rent-A-Center spent $110,000 in lobbying. Both figures come from Opensecrets.org again.
The third strike against Rent-A-Center is that it illegally parks its box trucks on the sidewalk on Farmington Avenue. Many pedestrians utilize the sidewalk – mothers with strollers, people in wheelchairs, children on their way to school or the library – and the Rent-A-Center continually blocks the free passage with its box trucks.
I have approached the landlord, the manager (who has threatened to have me arrested), City Councilors and the Hartford Police Department about it many times. While the situation has improved minimally since I started complaining months ago, I am told that I should file a standing complaint, so that whenever I call HPD, I can just refer them to a specific complaint number.
However, I have to head over to Jennings Road to file a standing complaint, and law school has been limiting my time as of late. I will do it, though, because I am so tired of seeing those box trucks on the sidewalk.
Other Asylum Hill residents are fed up with quality of life issues, too. A local Niles Street neighbor recently went ringing doorbells with Community Service Officer Jim Barrett, seeking to organize, encouraging citizens to take an active role in the neighborhood.
In a flier the neighbor wrote, she described the problems she discovered in Hartford upon her move from Manhattan, “riff raff loitering in front of my home, causing me to lose sleep between their obnoxious noise and cars stopping in front of my property all hours of the night.”
The solution came from Barrett, she wrote. She filed a standing complaint, her right as a tax payer, against the criminals and prostitutes polluting the front of her Niles Street home. After the standing complaint, she said the police were more responsive.
If only Companions and Homemakers had such luck. But the resident is undeterred. She wrote in her note: “We have the right to live in a peaceful, crime free and ethical neighborhood. Let’s stick together and turn Asylum Hill into the majestic neighborhood it once was.”
Her efforts made me feel good, and I’ll leave you with her last line: “Chin up my taxpaying neighbors. You have rights. You are not alone. Godspeed.”