New Haven renters navigate a complex landscape of affordable housing services
Housing non-profits held a town hall last Saturday to provide support and legal advice for tenants facing rising rents or evictions.
Yale Daily News
Connecticut is experiencing a severe shortage of affordable rental homes for low-income households, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
As more New Haven tenants face rising rents and eviction, the Latinx non-profit Junta for Progressive Action held a free housing legal advice session last Saturday alongside other local and state housing nonprofits.
Aimed at helping the city’s Spanish-speaking population navigate the housing crisis, the town hall meeting brought together the Fair Rent Commission, New Haven Legal Aid Association, Central Connecticut chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and other union leaders to help tenants learn about eviction issues, fair rent, filing complaints against landlords and unionization.
Connecticut currently bans rent control throughout the state under CGA §7-148b, allowing all landlords to set rent and increase it. According to Connecticut Fair Housing Center, average rents in Connecticut are up 12 percent over the last 18 months, with increases of nearly 20 percent in some markets in just the last year.
“Many people were dealing with housing insecurity more than I’ve ever seen in my time here.” said Bruni Pizarro ENV ’19, Executive Director of Junta. “We tried to … bring folks together and so that they can, in theory, receive as many access points as possible. Maybe there’s multiple ways … of solving their housing issues.”
Fair Rent Commission
Excessive rent increases became a central theme at the meeting. New property owners in the city are raising rents to “excessive” levels for tenants already living in the property for some time, according to the executive director of The City of New Haven Fair Rent Commission Wildaliz Bermudez.
A fair rent commission has the authority to receive and investigate rent complaints, issue subpoenas, hold hearings and order landlords to reduce rents for specific reasons.
“I always tell them that you can file a complaint with the Fair Rent Commission, and we will investigate your case,” Bermudez said. “And ultimately, the commissioners can rule on the case, to gauge whether or not it is excessive. If they determine that it is excessive, your rent amount does not have to be the proposed amount that your new landlord is setting it up. It can be what the Fair Rent Commission sets it up to.”
According to Bermudez, an investigation process is triggered when a tenant files a complaint, and the five commissioners making up the Commission will have an informal hearing between the tenant and the landlord to try and reach a negotiation. If the case is not resolved in the informal hearing, the commissioners will formally hold a hearing with the tenant and landlord. The commissioners’ decision will stand for up to one year. If the tenant or the landlord does not accept the Commission’s decision, they can appeal to a court.
In regards to tenants’ complaints about increasing rent, the Commission can set rent to a lower amount if they find it excessive. The Commision can also eliminate the rent in the most egregious cases, such as the landlord refusing to repair the tenant’s house, making the unit unsafe.
Bermudez said that, on average, the Commission takes three to four months to investigate a case. During this time the tenant must pay the amount that they last agreed upon, meaning that if the tenant files a complaint against the increasing rent, they will pay the amount they last agreed upon instead of the new proposed rent by the landlord.
Bermudez said she is observing a housing crisis, where homes are both becoming unaffordable and inaccessible. There are two staffers, including herself, to investigate tenants’ complaints. Bermudez added that she hopes the upcoming budget process will result in one additional staffer, administrative assistant and four more commissioners.
“Our cases have doubled,” Bermudez said. “We receive new cases every day, including on weekends.”
The co-founders of Seramonte Tenants Union, Paul Xavier Boudreau and Greta Blau, attended the town hall meeting and encouraged tenants to unionize.
Boudreau told the News that tenants who file complaints to their landlord often face retaliation, such as being evicted or their cars being towed by the landlord. Boudreau said the union will show up to protest, so that the landlords know they are “not just talking to one person [but] talking to all of us. Every tenant is all of us.”
In September, the New Haven Board of Alders voted unanimously on an ordinance to recognize tenant unions. The Commission is now able to register tenants who wish to form a union as an official union.
“Unionizing helps the tenants,” Blau said. “It allows for the tenant who’s part of a union to feel like they’re not in this by themselves. They’re in this collectively.”
According to Blau, if a union is registered with the Commission, the tenant can have a representative from the union represent them at the hearing.
In addition, Blau said that unionizing helps the Commission because the collective complaints submitted by a union provide the Commission with a pattern of repeated conflicts within a particular building or within all the complexes owned by a landlord.
In order for tenants to collectively register as a union, they must have the same landlord and live in the same building or parcels of joint land owned by the same landlord, according to Blau.
Boudreau and Blau said that their union started with three people at the beginning of the year. By recruitment efforts such as going door to door, they now have over 250 people. According to Blau, the union had “a really big win” at the Fair Rent Commission in Hamden on Oct. 19 where they went to represent three tenants whose rents were raised. Blau said that the Commission ruled that these three tenants’ rent will not increase until next year.
“There’s power in numbers, this is the only way for us to be able to do this together,” Blau said. “The way to fight back is to gather up the people who live with you in your building, or in your neighborhood.”
Right to counsel and legal aid
Attorneys from New Haven Legal Aid Association (NHLAA) provided free legal counseling for 15 minutes for each household on Saturday.
According to Eviction Help CT, only 7 percent of tenants in Connecticut have a lawyer representing them in eviction proceedings.
In June 2021, Governor Ned Lamont signed off the Right to Counsel Program so that tenants who are income-eligible are able to have a lawyer represent them pro-bono if they are facing eviction or loss of their housing subsidy.
Amy Eppler-Epstein LAW ’86, one of the attending attorneys, told the News that the law now requires that the notice to quit, the first document served to tenants in the eviction process, must include a flier informing tenants that they have the right to have a free lawyer to represent them in the eviction case. The flier will provide a phone number for the tenants to call to apply for a free lawyer. Eppler-Epstein said that with the implementation of this requirement, more tenants have come to NHLAA for help.
NHLAA prioritizes tenants from the zip code area that has the highest number of eviction cases, including 06511, 06513 and 06519.
Eppler-Epstein identified non-payment of rent as the main cause of eviction. She explained that many tenants grow frustrated with landlords when they do not make the requested repair and thus withhold rent, which makes them “end up on the defense in an eviction case.”
“We want to … make sure people know that if they’re having problems getting repairs made … holding their rent is the worst thing to do because then you can face an eviction.” Eppler-Epstein said. “There are other options, such as filing a payment, and a court case, a Fair Rent Commission complaint that can give them the opportunity to try to force their landlord to make the repairs and maybe even refund some of their rent to them without putting them at risk of being evicted.”
According to Eppler-Epstein, another common reason for eviction is that landlords do not want to renew the expiring leases but instead increase rents with a new lease.
Eppler-Epstein said that in Connecticut, when eviction is brought in within the six months of a tenant having made good faith complaints about conditions that need to be fixed, there’s a presumption that the eviction is being brought in landlord’s retaliation.
Eppler-Epstein suggested that tenants should try to keep good records and make a paper record of everything, such as their rent payment and complaints.
Pizarro told the News that the pandemic exacerbated housing instability and eviction problems for the Latinx community. Since April 2020, Junta has raised $150,000 for rent assistance and supported hundreds of families and individuals.
In response to a growing eviction crisis, in the summer of 2020, Junta created the Pay Rent Fund, prioritizing undocumented communities without access to state relief and having multiple months of accumulated back rent. In winter of 2020, Junta started Pay Utilities Fund, which supports families with their electric and gas bills to ensure that they stay warm in the colder months.
Earlier in October, the city launched the Security Deposit Program that will provide a one-time rental security deposit of $5,000 for up to two months to eligible individuals and families.
What’s the next step?
Annie Harper GRD ’10, Associate Research Scientist in Psychiatry at the School of Medicine applauded the enactment of Right to Counsel. Moving forward, she suggested that the state should consider implementing good cause evictions and eviction sealing.
“It’s on their record that they have an eviction, and then future landlords don’t want to deal with them because they’ve been evicted in the past and they think it might happen again,” said Harper. “So it’s important to have that information be confidential, because what happens is that people get evicted and then they can never really find housing again, or they have to pay a huge security deposit they can’t afford.”
Harper acknowledged that landlords prefer not to rent to tenants who might not be able to pay rent. However, she argued that denying housing based on a past eviction or increasing security deposit makes it even harder for tenants to afford housing. On the other hand, if landlords increase rent for tenants with past evictions, it is even harder for those tenants to pay rent.
Harper also questioned if we are “really happy to live in a society where if people can’t afford to pay their rent, they live on the streets.”
“We need to be thinking about a housing system that actually works,” Harper said. “Because at the moment, it doesn’t work for tenants and It doesn’t work for landlords.”
According to the 2022 Connecticut Housing Profile, 30 percent of renter households are extremely low income.