Tim Tai, Senior Photographer

Backed by tenant advocates, the state legislature is looking to dramatically expand renter protections in Connecticut. Those efforts took a big step forward last week. 

On Feb. 29, the joint Housing Committee approved legislation that would strengthen protections for renters facing eviction, prohibiting landlords from evicting their tenants without “just cause.” The bill, SB 143, would expand existing just cause protections, currently reserved for elderly and disabled tenants in buildings with five or more units, to almost all renters in the state. The fight for the bill has been spearheaded by Growing Together Connecticut, the Connecticut Tenants Union and Make the Road Connecticut, among other tenants’ rights and community organizations. 

“Many people within our urban communities [including] New Haven cannot even afford to rent, so they’re moving out of our city,” Rep. Juan Candelaria, the Deputy Speaker of the House who represents portions of Fair Haven and the Hill, told the News. “We need to control this.” 

Candelaria voiced his support for the bill, calling it “overdue.” He said that he sees SB 143 as a critical tool to address the affordable housing crisis and discriminatory housing practices in New Haven and around the state. In particular, Candelaria said he is concerned with protecting tenants from large “mega landlords” who often buy up rental properties from out-of-state. He told the News that he thinks evictions at the end of a lease without cause are far too frequent in Connecticut.

According to the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, landlords filed 2,224 no-cause eviction notices in 2023, around 11 percent of evictions statewide. In 2023, over 20,000 evictions were filed in the state, an approximately four percent increase from 2018. In New Haven alone, 1,769 evictions were filed in 2023, 240 without cause. 

Candelaria said that his office has received several messages from New Haven residents in support of the bill, which he committed to do, calling it “the right measure.”

Sen. Rob Sampson, ranking member of the Housing Committee and himself a landlord, raised several objections. He accused the Democratic caucus of discriminating against landlords, at one point equating the bill to racial and gender discrimination

“That’s all racism,” Sampson was quoted saying in the CT Mirror. “It’s been bad since the very first day that anyone judged anyone based on the color of their skin.” 

A related bill that would have capped annual rent increases at four percent plus inflation failed to pass the General Assembly last session after opposition from members of the Housing Committee. This session, the Senate Democratic caucus has added SB 143 to their list of legislative priorities

In conversation with the News, Candelaria pushed back on Sampson’s claims.

“If you’re going to increase rents, we’re not saying, ‘don’t increase them,’” he said. “Make sure those rents are fair and equitable so that we can manage the housing crisis in our cities. That’s all that we’re saying with this bill.” 

Tenant advocates support bill for low-income renters

Luke Melonakos-Harrison DIV ’23, Vice-President of CTU, also disagreed with Sampson’s claims, condemning the argument that landlords should face no regulation as ignoring the necessity of housing. He cited similar just cause legislation in several states and municipalities as evidence of its effectiveness and “positive impact” on housing stability and housing security.

“It’s a little bit hard to take seriously when you’re actually seeing what’s going on between tenants and landlords in real life and not in an abstract, theoretical debate,” he told the News.

Melonakos-Harrison did express concerns about the addition of a carve-out to the bill which exempts buildings with four units or less from the new regulations. The carve-out, he said, would reduce the bill’s effectiveness, confuse tenants about their eligibility, and play into the misconception that landlords of smaller buildings are less predatory. Instead, Melonakos-Harrison suggested, his organization might accept requirements based on the number of properties a landlord owns.

At the moment, CTU will continue advocating for the bill in Hartford.

“We’re focused on working with our members and our coalition partners across the state to reach out to their legislators and let them know how they feel about this bill and the importance of Just Cause,” Melonakos-Harrison said.

Teresa Quintana is the housing equity organizer for Make the Road Connecticut, an organization dedicated to providing legal assistance and support services for immigrant communities. 

Quintana said that immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented, are especially vulnerable to no-cause evictions.

“Many people in the undocumented community live that way because they trust,” she said. “They say, ‘Oh, they’re good landlords. We take care of the place,’ so they think [evictions are]  never going to happen… to them. And then it happens.”

According to Quintana, Make the Road Connecticut has collaborated with CTU and other organizations to encourage community members to testify in support of the bill.

She noted that immigrants are often reluctant to share their personal experiences with no-cause evictions, necessitating visits to their communities.

“When you’re going to tell [your] story, you’re going to feel that your soul is opening, because there’s a big, big scar,” she said, recalling her frequent words of encouragement to immigrants. “We’re going to expose how these people [are] taking advantage of you, your families.”

Melonakos-Harrison testified in support of the bill and helped organize members to do the same. He sees SB 143 as critical to preventing “gentrification” fueled by landlords evicting tenants to raise rents and preventing retaliatory eviction of “outspoken” tenants, especially tenant union supporters.

He said he is confident that the bill will help address the state’s affordable housing crisis by forcing landlords to negotiate with tenants, and limiting rent increases. SB 143 would provide tenants with “leverage” to negotiate a reasonable rent increase at the end of their lease, Melonakos-Harrison told the News.

“Lapse of time evictions are an easy tool for landlords who want to quell dissent, to kind of punish advocates and organizers and people who are even just requesting basic repairs,” Melonakos-Harrison said.

Landlords push back against proposed eviction protections

Rick Bush, a property manager and the treasurer of the Connecticut Coalition of Property Owners, testified in opposition to the bill at a public hearing on Feb. 20. 

Bush described lapse of time evictions as a “tool” for landlords, for example, if they need to remove a tenant to renovate their property.

“The idea that a tenant, once they take possession of a property, can stay in perpetuity is just completely ridiculous,” he told the News.

With the bill now moving on to the state assembly, Bush said he plans to keep lobbying against it and recruiting other members of the CCOPO to submit testimony in opposition.

CCOPO President John Souza is another landlord who testified against the bill.

Souza attributed tenants’ housing instability to the state affordable housing shortage, rather than lapse of time evictions. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that there is a shortage of over 89,000 affordable rental homes for extremely low-income renters in Connecticut.

“Until they build a lot more housing, it’s really just musical chairs for everybody,” he said.

Currently, lapse of time evictions require landlords to provide tenants with a minimum of three days between receiving their eviction notice and vacating the property. 

However, Souza pointed out that tenants can contest such evictions, prompting a court process that lasts a few months. Tenants can also petition the court for additional stay for up to six months, providing them with extra time to find new housing.   

“I’m disappointed in the small-mindedness and short-sightedness of the legislators in Connecticut,” Bush said. “[Disappointed] that they… would fail to provide adequate housing for their constituents and that their vote is going to have the unintended consequence of making [renting property] more difficult, more expensive and less attractive to tenants. It’s going to be a disaster.”

The bill passed the Housing Committee along partisan lines. Candelaria said that he is optimistic that the bill will pass the legislature this session, most likely without any Republican support, but declined to speculate on whether Governor Ned Lamont would sign the bill into law.

Five states currently have some form of just cause eviction legislation.

Maia Nehme covers housing and homelessness and Latine communities for the News. Originally from Washington, D.C., she is a first-year in Benjamin Franklin College majoring in history.