Vaibhav Sharma, Photo Editor

Last month, Connecticut State Sen. and Vice President of the Senate Housing Committee Saud Anwar introduced a bill that would recognize the right to housing in Connecticut.

Senate Bill 194, entitled An Act Establishing Right to Housing, was originally proposed at the start of the 2020 legislative session but was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After being reintroduced in this year’s legislative session, the bill was twice referred to the joint committee on housing on Jan. 22 and Feb. 25. If passed, the bill would make Connecticut the first state to recognize a right to adequate housing and establish housing access as a state priority.

“The bill would establish a proactive system towards combating homelessness,” Anwar told the News. “The prevention strategy is primarily to try and identify the high-risk individuals and see what interventions can be made for those high-risk individuals to be able to not lose their homes.”

Anwar described the bill as a roadmap to progressively ensure access to housing, but said it is worded in such a way that it “would not expose the state to a lawsuit.” He explained that while the bill included components of a right to housing, its language does not specifically say that no one will be homeless, thus protecting the state from potential lawsuits. 

In its current form, Senate Bill 194 is under 100 words in length. Its language serves as a general affirmation of the state’s commitment to addressing homelessness and does not include specific policy proposals.

Anwar emphasized that the bill is simply a “start in the right direction” and said that further bills related to construction of affordable properties and workforce housing are necessary to make the right to housing a reality. 

In an interview with the News, Kellyanne Day, CEO of New Reach — a local organization that works to eradicate homelessness — said she believes the bill is “definitely more of a moral mandate than a policy.” However, she said its symbolic value was immense — especially in the wake of a spike in homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Sarah Fox, policy director for the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness echoed this sentiment, calling the bill “aspirational and foundational.”

According to Fox, political negotiations caused legislators to remove some key components of the bill that would have ensured all residents a right to housing. The current bill’s scope has been narrowed so that it falls mostly under the office of the Housing Committee, Fox said. She also said the current version of the bill no longer incurs costs to the state, and thus does not need to go before the Planning and Zoning Committee or the Appropriations Committee in order to be approved.

“That’s how you keep a bill moving,” said Fox, explaining that a bill was more likely to get shut down if it had to go before multiple committees. 

While the bill’s language states that “general statutes be amended to establish a right to housing,” Anwar said that Senate Bill 194 would not provide homeless individuals the right to sue the state for housing. Instead, the bill is intended to build political will and pave the way for an absolute statewide right to adequate housing. 

“All legislation is incremental,” Fox said. She added that the plan was to build upon this legislation in the future to ensure an absolute right to housing.

For Margaret Middleton, CEO of Columbus House — a Connecticut-based nonprofit that helps individuals find affordable housing — it is far too early to predict the practical impacts of the bill, which will depend heavily on the final wording of the bill.

“In a symbolic sense, however, it’s an incredibly important message for the state to adopt,” Middleton said in an interview with the News.

For Day, the bill represents a message of state solidarity which is much needed in an environment of strict zoning regulations and “not in my backyard” politics — a phrase meaning that cities like New Haven often disproportionately shoulder the burden of providing affordable housing.

“There’s a real feeling that people are scared, they don’t want it in their town,” Day said. 

She believes the bill can incentivize neighbouring towns to work together to provide affordable housing.

“We’re all in this together,” she added.

But Merryl Eaton, director of education and advocacy for Christian Community Action — a group that runs emergency homeless shelters in New Haven — told the News that she believes more needs to be done, citing concerns that Senate Bill 194 was too broad. She added that for a community to thrive, the state would also need to provide access to services such as healthcare, transportation, childcare and education.

Senate Bill 194 will be heard before the Housing Committee on March 4.

Vanika Mahesh | vanika.mahesh@yale.edu