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    Thursday, March 30, 2023

    Simplifying housing crisis doesn’t bring solutions


    It may be simpler to look at societal problems from our ideological trenches, but that approach is unlikely to lead to effective solutions. Take the alarming increase in evictions since the country emerged from the pandemic, for instance.

    Depending on where your sympathies and political proclivities stand, you might lay the blame at the feet of heartless landlords only interested in making a buck even if it means putting people on the street or, conversely, on deadbeat tenants who play the system to live rent free as long as they can.

    Dig deeper, as The Day did as part of its ongoing Housing Solutions Lab, and you find the issue is far more complex than bad guys and good guys. It is rooted in other public policy challenges that confront the state and country. To take that hard look The Day teamed veteran Day Staff Writer Greg Smith with a group of aspiring journalists at the University of Connecticut, led by Professor Mike Stanton. They collected the data, visited housing court, and told the stories of tenants facing evictions and of the property owners who sought those evictions.

    What the reporters found were tenants who were pitched into financial crises by such things as job losses, health problems, and domestic upheavals — often worsened by the pandemic. For a time, moratoriums on evictions and emergency government rent subsidies had provided relief, but with the protections and relief programs expiring, evictions spiked.

    Reporters also found landlords squeezed between the inflationary pressures they faced and the rising number of tenants who were not meeting their rent obligations, turning properties that had provided worthwhile returns on their investments into money losers.

    Yes, there are bad tenants and bad landlords. But most renters simply want an affordable to place to live and some understanding when they face a hardship. Most property owners simply want to get reliably paid for the product they provide — housing.

    The news was not all grim. The reporters found things that are working.

    Connecticut’s new Right to Counsel program provides tenants facing evictions with legal counsel, assuring they get a fair hearing in housing court. Currently, the program is only operating in high-eviction urban centers. Also helping is the use of mediators who work to find solutions short of eviction, including tapping government and nonprofit assistance. Both these programs can help keep people in their apartments and avoid credit-destroying eviction orders that can make it highly difficult to find new housing. The legislature should expand these programs.

    High rents and resulting evictions are part of the larger problem of a lack of affordable housing. High demand and insufficient housing means increased costs. This is why our editorial board has endorsed legislative initiatives to push past zoning restrictions to build more multi-family housing, with mandates that some reasonable percentage of the apartments be priced affordably, meaning about one-third of a family’s income.

    Federally, Democrats and Republicans should look for a compromise to address the affordable housing problem by expanding the Section 8 voucher program and by working with states to provide tax incentives that stimulate increased private investment in affordable housing development.

    Economic expansion and job growth are critical to ensuring people can afford housing. Improved education and tying vocational training to the jobs available is vital. But unless housing is expanded at the same time, increased rents and housing prices will outstrip salary gains.

    Simple solutions will not work, including trying to fix the problem on the backs of landlords. Thankfully, the legislature set aside the idea of placing an artificial cap on how much a property owner can increase rent. Landlords facing higher interest rates for financing, rising energy costs, and other inflationary pressures need the flexibility to cover those expenses.

    Legislating protections against landlord abuses — such as excessive late fees or unfairly seizing security deposits for normal wear and tear — is reasonable. Forcing landlords to lock-in rents, to keep tenants in place who do not pay, or mandating they rent to applicants despite poor tenant histories is not reasonable. Such an approach would risk driving more responsible landlords from the business and that will only exacerbate the housing crisis.

    Addressing the housing crisis will be difficult. It begins with understanding it. The Housing Solutions Lab continues to show how in-depth reporting can play a critical role.

    The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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