Yash Roy, Contributing Photographer

Canvassers braved the cold snap last Sunday to knock on doors in New Haven’s Fair Haven neighborhood, generating support for a state-wide cap on annual rent increases. 

The proposed law, Senate Bill 138, would limit state-wide rent increases at 2.5 percent each year. The bill would also crack down on no-fault evictions, restricting landlords’ power to evict tenants without valid reasons. 

“Right now, landlords can evict anybody for any reason — five days later you’re out of a house,” Alex Speiser, an organizer with Connecticut Tenants Union, said. “We’re fed up with it. …We’re trying to push politicians to do something as soon as possible.”

The Cap the Rent campaign kicked off in January, timed to align with the start of Connecticut’s new legislative session. Sunday’s canvassing in New Haven was part of a greater statewide effort, with volunteers with the Cap the Rent movement knocking on doors in Bridgeport, Manchester and East Hartford. 

Cap the Rent is part of a larger housing rights movement that has swept across the state since the pandemic. The Connecticut Tenants Union has been active for about a year, helping to form multiple tenants unions around the state. 

Thomas Gilbertie, a volunteer, said that he was motivated to join the Cap the Rent Campaign as he prepares to become a first-time renter after he graduates college. 

“I’ve been looking at rent prices, and they’re ridiculous and unrealistic for someone like me,” Gilbertie said. 

Speiser drew attention to skyrocketing rental rates across the state. In the past year, rents increased around 12 percent across Connecticut, and in New Haven specifically, rents spiked around 19 percent. Currently, 52 percent of Connecticut renters are cost burdened, Speiser said, meaning over half of families spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities. 

James O’Donnell, an organizer with the city’s first officially recognized tenants union, explained that advocates decided to push for a 2.5 percent rent cap to reflect the average annual rental increase in Connecticut between 2000 and 2020, which was 2.1 percent. 

O’Donnell also pointed out the bill would carve out possible exceptions for small landlords on a local level. The exemption process, O’Donnell said, would involve working individually with landlords and might function similarly to how fair rent commissions work with tenants to process complaints about unfair rent hikes. 

On Sunday, canvassers had three main goals: getting tenants to sign a petition for rent caps, helping people call their elected officials to express support for the Cap the Rent bill and encouraging tenants to volunteer to give public testimony at an upcoming public hearing. So far, the legislation has been referred to the Connecticut General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Housing.

Ben Smith, an organizer with the Connecticut Tenants Union, said he was particularly motivated to canvass after thinking about people who were unhoused during the extremely cold temperatures over the weekend. He was also compelled by stories he had heard of people living in apartments without properly-functioning heat. 

Canvassers specifically focused on blocks with high concentrations of properties owned by large, corporate real estate agencies such as Mandy Management and Ocean Management. Over the past five years, Mandy Management affiliates have spent over $150 million acquiring 1,530 New Haven rental housing units. 

Speiser said that especially while organizing for tenant-related issues, he has encountered people fearing retaliation from landlords. 

“Housing is so fundamental to people’s lives and security, that they put up with a lot that they shouldn’t have to because they’re nervous about having even crummy living situations taken away from them,” said Speiser. 

Senate Bill 138 was proposed by New Haven State Sen. Gary Winfield and State Rep. Robyn Porter, among others. 

Maggie Grether covers housing and homelessness for city desk. Originally from Pasadena, California, she is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles college.