On Wednesday, New Haven Healthy Start hosted an information session to help New Haveners take advantage of the UniteCT Rental Assistance program and other underutilized housing resources. 

UniteCT is a statewide program meant to assist households that have been financially burdened by the COVID-19 pandemic. It launched in the beginning of 2021, using $375 million from the American Rescue Plan — federal COVID-19 relief dollars. Originally, UniteCT provided up to $10,000 in rental and electricity payment assistance, but that amount increased to $15,000 in the summer. 

“For individuals with a COVID-19 related hardship, this is an opportunity for them to secure up to $15,000 in rental assistance,” Virginia Spell, the interim president and CEO of the Urban League of Southern Connecticut, said at the information session. “When I say COVID-19 related hardship, that can include anything from ‘my kids were home during COVID-19 because there was no school so I had increased expenses around my utilities or food … or my employment shut down because of COVID-19.’”

In the Elm City, UniteCT struggled to get off the ground. In April, three months after its launch, only 10 households had taken advantage of it. Today, UniteCT has approved 5,516 cases in New Haven, providing assistance to 2,603 unique households and 456 landlords. In total, UniteCT has disbursed $15,827,506 into the city.

“I have sent a few of the patients I am working with to your agency and have heard nothing but good things,” said Haydee Hernandez, a community health worker with Project Access — a nonprofit focused on providing medical assistance to underserved communities in New Haven.

One problem that UniteCT faced during its launch was a lack of guidance regarding the application process. As an online application, the process can be challenging for those unable to upload the required documents and those less “computer savvy,” according to Sparks.

“Some folks just don’t feel comfortable putting their personal information in. We know there is a digital divide in communities of color,” Sparks added. “So what we have encouraged folks to do, if they do not have a trusted friend or trusted family member to help them with the application, we invite them to come to our office and schedule an appointment, and sit with one of our four councilors here in New Haven.”

Sparks also attributed the success of UniteCT in New Haven to partnerships with other social service groups, specifically housing groups in the city. 

According to Sparks, although UniteCT has spent $271 million of the initially allocated $375 million, fears about the program running out of funds are very unlikely. 

“We’ve been told that we are funded until December 2022,” Sparks said. She added that recently requests for assistance have been dying down, so she and her team have been getting back out into the community because funds are still available. 

“We are encouraging families to be proactive. The moratorium on evictions has been lifted. … We are going to assume that everyone is eligible,” Sparks said.

During the information session, William Patt, the chief housing clerk for the state of Connecticut, spoke about legal options for tenants facing eviction such as the right to counsel program, which will likely begin its pilot in the beginning of next year. Although the pilot city for the program has yet to be selected, Patt placed his bet on New Haven because of its “strong presence with a number of attorneys.”

Currently, in Connecticut, only seven percent of tenants have legal representation during eviction proceedings, compared with 80 percent of landlords. Once implemented, this program will provide legal assistance to tenants who would otherwise struggle to afford counsel. 

Patt also noted that the New Haven Housing Session of New Haven at 121 Elm St. is currently able to provide assistance to tenants. 

“Come down to the housing court before you do anything. No matter what it is,” Patt said. We can’t represent you, but can give you procedural assistance. If we see a glaring error, we’ll mention it to you. … As long as someone hasn’t moved out, there is always something they can do even if it’s at the eleventh hour.” 

The Neighborhood Housing Service of New Haven, able to help tenants and landlords apply for rental assistance from UniteCT, is located at 333 Sherman Ave.

KHUAN HALL