Explainer: Why Connecticut housing advocates fear eviction surge
A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire July 31, after the Biden administration extended the date by a month.
The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on their rent.
Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access more than $45 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.
Advocates for tenants say the distribution of the money has been slow and that more time is needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who are behind on their rents.
As of June 7, roughly 3.2 million people in the U.S. said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.
Here’s the situation in Connecticut:
What's the status of eviction moratoriums in the state?
Connecticut is one of several states that enacted its own eviction moratorium in 2020. The state's rule, which prevents landlords from filing most new eviction cases, with certain exceptions, is set to expire on June 30. The Connecticut Fair Housing Center, a housing advocacy group, has called on Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont to extend the state's moratorium until July 21, saying more time is needed to better educate the public about the state's rental assistance initiative.
What's being done to help people facing eviction?
Using roughly $400 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds, the state developed the UniteCT Program from scratch to provide both rental and utility payment assistance to qualified households impacted by the pandemic. Renters that meet income guidelines must demonstrate, among other things, a risk of becoming homeless to be eligible for up to $15,000 in rental assistance that's paid to their landlord. As of June 23 about $17.3 million had been approved for 2,352 cases. Additionally, up to $1,500 for unpaid utility bills is available to qualified applicants.
Sarah White, staff attorney for the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, warned state lawmakers in recent letter “the effects of the pandemic will be needlessly amplified by the long-lasting consequences of eviction” if more time isn't given to distributing the rental relief. The group also says it should be mandatory for landlords to participate, arguing that some are starting to evict people for nonpayment, even under the state's moratorium, without first applying to the UniteCT program for funding.
How are the courts handling eviction hearings?
Eviction hearings are still being held remotely because of pandemic restrictions, but are expected to resume in-person as state court operations continue to open back up. Meanwhile, the state is using federal COVID-19 relief funds to provide low-income tenants with no-cost legal representation for eviction proceedings or administrative proceedings.
How affordable is housing in the state's rental markets?
The “rent burden” in Connecticut, the percentage of households that spend 30% or more of their income on rent, is near or exceeds 50% in most counties, according to AffordCT, a housing database. Fairfield County has the largest percentage of households meeting the “rent burden” standard, at more than 52%. It's more than 47% in Hartford County, where the overall median rent in the Hartford, West Hartford and East Hartford metro area is $1,500 a month, with an average two-bedroom costing $1,703 a month, according to data from Realtor.com.
Are evictions expected to create a surge in homelessness?
Erin Kemple, executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, said she “absolutely” expects a surge in homelessness, noting there isn't much that a court can do to keep in tenant who is in arrears in their housing under Connecticut law. According to U.S. Census data from the end of May, 69,000 tenants in Connecticut said they were behind in rent. Kemple said that's about 3.5 times the number of eviction filings the state typically sees in an entire year. She said there's been a “real spike” already in eviction cases being filed because Connecticut's moratorium has an exception for tenants with more than six months of unpaid rent.
Aaron Turner, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Housing, said the state is “making every effort, through a wide variety of programs and initiatives” to prevent a surge in homelessness. He said: “There are always evictions, for a variety of reasons, but we are taking steps necessary to prevent those evictions that are due solely to nonpayment of rent due to the financial impacts associated with the pandemic.”
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