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    Sunday, December 04, 2022

    Southeastern Connecticut needs rent relief

    Recently, Gov. Ned Lamont signed emergency legislation suspending Connecticut’s gas tax until June 30 to grant residents relief from the skyrocketing gas prices that have overtaken the state and the rest of the country due to the Ukraine-Russia conflict. As a gas station owner for the past 12 years, I interviewed with WFSB last week and expressed my support for the governor’s decision to aid residents with a tax holiday. With a high gas circulation rate, the tax would not really affect my bottom line. However, this relief comes at a time when gas is not the only expense that is plaguing residents. Skyrocketing rents are putting enormous pressure on area families. Norwich, which was listed on the Connecticut Insider’s 15 hottest housing markets in Connecticut, has seen a surge in rental prices. Now more than ever, Norwich renters are scrambling to pay increased rents and have less income to spend on necessities like food and medication.

    This state-wide rental market rate hike is no surprise as the lack of choice in the rental market has allowed many property owners to raise rates to extremes. While pandemic programs like the Unite CT rental assistance program were lifelines for thousands of residents, the expiration of those funds has left those now struggling to cope with rent hikes without a safety net. A quick search for apartments in Norwich on most rental sites produces about 20-25 results. With a population of about 40,000+, it is no surprise that the hot market has lent itself to higher rates with little to no competition in the city's rental market. In a recent legislative committee hearing, a Greenwich legislator relayed that housing is a “want” and the market would recalibrate to today’s supply and demand, and that those willing to work hard could acquire the housing they desired.

    As a Norwich City Council member and someone who is closely connected with his community, I can tell you that the market has instead produced giant waiting lists for 1-bedroom apartments and has caused working families to spend more than half their income on rent. And for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) individuals in Norwich and across the state, the rent hikes are even more problematic as a report by the Connecticut Fair Housing Center and CT Data Collaborative found that from 2017-2021, Black and Latino renters had cases filed against them at higher rates than white renters. Black renters were three times more likely than white renters to have an eviction filed against them, and for Latino renters it was two times more likely. We know who is in danger of eviction during times of financial crisis and we must protect our vulnerable neighbors.

    As I personally venture into the world of affordable housing development, I can tell you that the stock of housing in Norwich is very old — 42% of owner occupied and rental units were built before 1950 — and we need new construction. However, the timeline for creating new homes is measured in years. New homes available in 2023, 2024, or 2025 will be of no help to those struggling to make ends meet right now. What can be done now to mitigate the rate hikes and give Norwich renters much needed breathing room?

    For years, Connecticut has continued investments in housing vouchers through the Rental Assistance Program (RAP). Increasing these investments can lessen the impact of rent increases and limit future evictions. The HomeConnecticut campaign, a statewide housing advocacy effort managed by the Partnership for Strong Communities released, a legislative agenda this year that asks the state to expand RAP with an additional $20 million to flexibly support 2,000 more households. Governor Lamont and the Connecticut General Assembly can act now to avoid an incoming wave of displacements and evictions with direct rental relief for households in Norwich and across the state. As a business owner and someone who cares deeply about Norwich, I know a community cannot thrive when so many of its residents can barely afford to keep a roof over their head.

    Swarnjit Singh Khalsa is a Norwich City Council Member and small-business owner.

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