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    Friday, December 01, 2023

    With a 20% increase in rent, a new proposal would cap prices for Connecticut tenants

    When the ownership of Victoria Ramos’ apartment changed last year, the rent swelled from $625 to $850, but the reportedly squalid conditions remained the same.

    With rats and cockroaches crawling the complex, used condoms laying in the hallways, and shadowy activities ensuing each night, Ramos said raising her 9-year-old son in such an environment worries her, but Ramos also worries about what would happen if the landlord forced them to leave.

    “Since I was a child, I experienced being homeless, and I’m trying for my son not to have the same experience,” Ramos said. “During the summer of 2022, the new landlord tried to increase our rent without renewing our lease because he wants to evict all of us at some point. He already evicted most of my neighbors, and I know I’m next.”

    Ramos and other tenant-rights organizers from the Cap the Rent CT coalition rallied in Hartford Tuesday ahead of a public hearing on a proposal to restrict rent increases in Connecticut that saw hundreds of written and spoken testimony.

    Coalition members say that annual rent caps will rein in predatory landlords and increase housing affordability and security amid skyrocketing rents and limited availability. Opponents argue that more regulation will stifle new development, decrease existing stock, and ultimately feed the housing crisis.

    Under H.B. 6588, landlords could only increase rent annually by 4% plus the consumer price index — a figure that the Commissioner of Housing would calculate by Nov. 1 each year. The rule would not apply to buildings less than 15 years old and units where the landlord is charging reduced rent to tenants subsidized by federal, state and local programs.

    The legislation would restrict all landlords from increasing rent during the first year of tenancy and during a declared public health emergency, including the year following the emergency’s expiration. Additionally, landlords must issue a written notice of an increase 90 days before raising the rent.

    Landlords found in violation of the legislation would be liable to pay tenants three months of rent plus actual damages.

    The calls for tighter controls come as a result of rising eviction rates and a more than 20% increase in rent prices state-wide in the post-pandemic housing market.

    Sarah White, an attorney at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, said the ballooning rents burdening Connecticut tenants are not simply the result of inflation.

    “Yes, everything is more expensive right now, but that’s not all that’s going on with rent increases,” White said. “We saw a shift in our housing market during the pandemic as more out-of-state corporate landlords bought properties in Connecticut and took advantage of the pandemic, of a tight housing market and higher than usual inflation to jack up rent and increase their profits.”

    Looking at rent control models in California, Oregon and nearly 200 U.S. cities, White said that H.B. 6588 could do more. At the press conference, White called for a 3% annual cap, rent stabilization between tenants to eliminate the incentive for landlords to push out old tenants to charge new renters higher rates, and an end to no-cause evictions.

    “We have a historic opportunity to pass a rent cap that will give tenants relief now and improve housing affordability over the long term,” White said. “We can make sure Connecticut is a place that everyone can call home, no exceptions.”

    The proposal has received pushback from property owners and developers who feel that a cap on rent increases would put landlords, who say they have struggled with rising utility, operation and tax costs, in a position where renting is no longer profitable.

    State Rep. Joe Polletta of the General Assembly’s Housing Committee said that in order to make Connecticut’s housing more affordable, the state needs to incentivize new development, not drive it away with rent caps.

    “The only way to properly lower rent costs in Connecticut is to have more housing stock,” Polletta said. “The goal is to have more units available. This will inhibit a housing provider from trying to build more units because of all of the restrictions. … It really creates a precarious relationship between landlords and tenants because the landlord is now going to be forced to only levy a certain percentage each year. So that may cut back on services, it may cut back on maintenance, it’s not a good situation.”

    Lauren Tagliatela, the government relations chair of the Connecticut Apartment Association, said that data from the National Apartment Association found that for every dollar of rent collected, 9 cents goes to the property owners as profit.

    “Rent control is not the way to fix the affordability problem,” Tagliatela said. “Unfortunately, it has unintended consequences [and] it actually makes things less affordable for residents.”

    Tagliatela said that rent caps could result in landlords leaving the state, investors pulling out of development projects and property owners converting rental units into condominiums.

    “I think everybody in this room, no matter what side you’re on, can say we want more housing. … How we get there is a different story,” Tagliatela said. “We want to be part of the affordability solution.”

    Tenant-advocates argue the current housing situation has gotten out of control and only a cap can right its course.

    Ryan Sutherland, a medical student at the Yale School of Medicine and a tenant organizer in New Haven, said that he works three part time jobs and still struggles to pay the bills on his apartment that is riddled with maintenance issues.

    “I have never worked harder in my life, and I’ve never felt poorer,” Sutherland said. " My neighbor’s sink overflowed with sewage a few weeks ago, bubbling over the rim of the sink and leaking onto the floor. Other neighbors complain about mice and bugs. My own apartment has an unfilled moist hole in the drywall behind the sink through which I routinely hear dripping. … My friend has black mold in their basement. Another student has been without heat for over two weeks, and another has a gas leak. Many students, like me, feel stuck.”

    Sutherland said that in the current housing market, renters continue to pay excessive prices because they feel “replaceable.”

    “We pay what we are asked and put up with health hazards in our own homes,” Sutherland said. “Predatory landlords realize how vulnerable we are and exploit this. If we don’t pay the price, they imagine someone else will.”

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