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Spurred by sharply increasing rent and poor living conditions, Connecticut tenants have been organizing a tenants’ rights movement unlike any seen for decades in the state. 

One result of their organizing has been the creation of tenant unions across the state to address subpar living conditions, unfair evictions and rent hikes.

“The basic idea of a tenants union is that tenants are more powerful if they act together,” said Sarah White, attorney at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. “When tenants act together, they can build community, they can make their voices heard by doing things together and bringing collective complaints.” 

According to Anika Singh Lemar, a clinical professor at Yale Law School, Connecticut has some  of the lowest rental vacancy rates nationwide, making it difficult for tenants to find new housing even if their landlords unfairly increase rent or fail to maintain good living conditions. Tenants unions, Singh Lemar explained, work to counteract that imbalance between tenants and landlords. 

Tracing the rise of tenants unions in Connecticut

White told the News that she thinks the explosion in tenant organizing in Connecticut over the past two years was prompted by housing inequities laid bare by the pandemic. 

“Many tenants that we were organizing with were essential workers out everyday risking their lives for very little pay and then coming home and experiencing threats of eviction and massive rent increases,” White said. “It became clear to all of us that housing is health.”

In 2020, tenant organizers launched the Cancel Rent CT campaign, which urged the state to cancel all rent and mortgage payments during the height of the pandemic. Efforts by the housing advocates led the state to pass a Right to Counsel in 2021, which provides low-income tenants facing eviction with an attorney and, by some estimates, has saved the state millions of dollars. 

Over the past year the Connecticut Tenants Union, an umbrella organization of tenants unions across the state, has helped organize multiple new unions.

Luke Melonakos-Harrison, a member of the Connecticut Tenants Union, spoke to the News on the rise of unions and expressed his optimism in the face of staunch opposition.  

“The opposition is going to be so strong, and it’s going to take us a long time for us to get to a place where we could push for that [a cap of 2.5 percent on annual rent increases]” he said. “It’s really incredibly encouraging and inspiring that there’s enough people out there who want this to make it a really viable threat to the powers that be that will try and stop it.”

Melonakos-Harrison also urged Yale students to get involved and fight for their interests as well. 

“Yale’s a landlord too,” he said. “Students who want to talk to us about how they can advocate for themselves as tenants, and especially get organized and form many unions, we’d love to connect with them.” 

However, according to White, tenants unions still face serious challenges to organizing and wielding their collective bargaining power. Unlike labor unions, there’s no clear state-wide framework for legal recognition of tenant unions. 

“[On the state level] tenants don’t have a right to collective bargain,”  White explained. “So even if 75 percent of a complex signs on to the tenant union and makes unified demands to the landlord, the landlord doesn’t necessarily have to bargain with them.”

White also pointed out that many legal processes in Connecticut are highly individualized and based on a single person filing a complaint, making it difficult to take collective action. 

Last September, New Haven became one of the first cities in Connecticut to formally recognize tenants’ rights to organize. 

Lawmakers put forth bills to protect tenant rights 

This year, as of Feb. 2, three bills were introduced to the Connecticut General Assembly concerning tenant unions’ rights, indicating an unusually high interest in the topic among legislators. State representative Aundré Bumgardner and state senator Martin M. Looney proposed similar measures that would allow tenant unions to act on behalf of individual tenants. 

Rep. Bumgardner told the News he was alerted that many tenants in his constituency who were speaking up against health and safety hazards were consequently evicted from their housing. Thus, he wants to ensure tenants can effectively organize and unionize to tackle issues they face with their landlords. 

“Residents should not be subjected to unfair evictions,” Rep. Bumgardner said. “We need to protect them especially in the aftermath of [the] global pandemic.” 

Bumgardner’s bill would allow tenants unions representing public housing units to bring complaints to fair rent commissions while Sen. Looney’s bill, on the other hand, would allow fair rent commissions to recognize all tenant unions.

Rep. Bumgardner told the News he is willing to work with Sen. Looney and all other supporters of tenant unions in order to pass the measures. 

According to White, Looney’s bill would be in line with New Haven’s city-wide measure which legally recognized tenants unions and allowed tenants unions to participate in investigations by the Fair Rent Commission.  

A group of Democratic legislators in the Connecticut House of Representatives, including Rep. Bumgardner, also introduced “An Act Concerning Tenants’ Rights” that calls to “increase protections for any tenant seeking to form or join a tenant union.” 

State representative Robyn Porter, one of the co-sponsors of the tenants’ rights bill, told the News that the COVID-19 pandemic showed the devastating consequences tenants might face if treated unfairly by their landlords. 

Thus, she said many legislators this year will work to solve the housing crisis and protect the rights of tenants.

“We need to make sure that the checks and balances [in the rent market] are in place so that people don’t find themselves in situations like homelessness,” Rep. Porter said. “And that is what the bill is looking to do: provide the prevention measures to secure people’s housing.”

State representative Geoff Luxenberg, who serves as a chair of the Connecticut General Assembly’s housing committee, did not comment directly on the bills’ prospects of getting passed this legislative session. 

However, he expressed his support for the tenant rights and protection against “wrongful and malicious housing insecurity and displacement.” 

“Tenants need strong positions in their relationships with landlords, who should not be able to harass a tenant or groups of tenants seeking to organize a building into a tenant union,” Luxenberg wrote in an email to the News. 

The battle for tenant rights, including the right to unionize, will not be an easy one for the Connecticut legislators. 

In a housing committee meeting on Jan. 24, Republicans, led by state senator Rob Sampson, opposed the housing measures introduced to the legislature. 

“[Democrats proposed] collection of policies that are damaging to housing providers that will ultimately exacerbate the problem of the housing shortage,” Samspon said during the committee meeting. “That’s what the agendas have been thus far, with few exceptions.”

Rep. Porter said that educating voters about the housing crisis and inequalities tenants face is the right way to push through the measures proposed. Despite the Republican backlash to the proposed measures, she hopes CGA will be able to protect tenant rights this legislative session.

“The path of policy is always a tricky thing,” Porter said. “People need us here. There is [a] sense of urgency that needs to be addressed.”

The Blake Street apartment complex, the site of the first recognized tenants union in the state, is located on 311 Blake St.  

Yurii Stasiuk is a Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. He previously covered City Hall as a beat reporter. Originally from Kalush, Ukraine, he is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College majoring in History and Political Science.
Maggie Grether covers housing and homelessness for city desk. Originally from Pasadena, California, she is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles college.
Nati Tesfaye is a sophomore in Branford College from East Haven, Connecticut. He covers business, workers and unions in the city of New Haven. Last year, he covered housing and homelessness for the News.