Jamaira Watson has been paralyzed with anxiety since Nov. 30, when a state marshal told her and her elderly mother, who are recovering from COVID-19, to move out of their apartment in Stratford — or he would be back in four days to force them out.
Unsure where they would go, and between the labored breaths brought on by the virus, she cried herself to sleep that night.
“I had a nervous breakdown. I am struggling,” said Watson, who lost her low-wage hotel job early in the pandemic and got behind on rent as she waited for her unemployment benefits to come through. She had just started a new factory job and was prepared to pay rent, but then she caught COVID-19 and was out of work — again.
That same week Watson faced homelessness, courts gave state marshals the OK to give 26 other families the same ultimatum — move out or be forced out — a number that nearly doubled last week and is expected to jump dramatically this winter unless the state or federal government changes course.
Since Gov. Ned Lamont began scaling back the eviction moratorium he ordered in the early days of the pandemic, landlords have filed complaints against 1,645 families and have received permission for marshals to move out 481 families and their belongings, according to court data tracked by the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. Another 1,183 removal requests await a judge’s ruling.
Without an influx of aid to help people pay their rent or a beefed-up eviction moratorium, a tsunami of Connecticut residents are expected to be put out of their homes next month – despite research linking evictions to additional COVID spread and death. Those being impacted the most by evictions are Black and Hispanic residents, the same population more likely to contract and die from the virus. Few have attorneys.
“Despite the moratorium, a lot of people are being evicted,” said Erin Kemple, executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. “The eviction crisis has begun.”
Connecticut is not unique. The financial advisory firm Stout Risius Ross predicts 2.4 million to 5 million American households are at risk of being turned out of their homes when the CDC’s ban on evictions, issued in September, expires in January.
Although the Lamont administration has said it is committed to preventing evictions during the pandemic – a message Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz reinforced last week when she spoke at a forum about homelessness – there does not appear to be any immediate plan to tighten the state’s eviction moratorium, commit to extend the existing protections that are set to expire Jan. 1, or funnel additional aid into the near-empty rental assistance program as the pandemic surges a second time.
The eviction crisis has begun.”
Struggling to balance the financial impact of an eviction ban on landlords and the overall economy with the need to control the spread of the virus, the administration says there is a limit to what it can do to prevent thousands of evictions from proceeding during the public health emergency.
“We’re trying to see every angle where we can put our support so that we can prevent what we are all afraid of: a lot of evictions,” Housing Commissioner Seila Mosquera-Bruno said in a recent interview. “We’re trying to prevent [evictions and homelessness] as much as we can, but there will be some people that we won’t be able to help.”
Evictions linked to COVID-19 spread
With a surge of evictions looming or already happening in states around the country, research has linked evictions to the spread of the coronavirus and deaths.
One study compared states where eviction moratoriums have expired to places where they remain, controlling for stay-at-home orders, mask mandates and school closures. The researchers estimate that as many as 502,000 additional infections and 12,500 deaths were the result of evictions resuming. In the states that lifted the moratorium, the COVID-19 incidence 16 weeks later was twice as high as the states that kept some protections in place. The mortality rate was at least three times as high.
Evictions often lead to people cramming into a friend’s or family’s place — or homelessness, making it incredibly difficult to follow public health experts’ pleas to physically distance and quarantine if exposed or contracted.
Watson knows that first-hand.
Three days before the state marshal was scheduled to return to force her out of her apartment, Watson called her best friend for help.
“She was willing to not let me be on the street,” said Watson, uneasy about moving while still potentially contagious. It would be impossible to isolate herself in her friend’s small one-bedroom apartment. Her mom had a similar conversation with a friend later that day.
We’re trying to prevent [evictions and homelessness] as much as we can, but there will be some people that we won’t be able to help.”
A recent article that several professors at Yale helped write lays out the threat evictions pose to public safety.
“Residential crowding and increased contact with others drive the spread of infectious respiratory illnesses, such as COVID-19. Adding as few as two new members to a household can as much as double the risk of illness,” their research shows. “Using an analogy of other infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, influenza and meningococcal disease, even seemingly small differences in housing have been linked to substantial increases in transmission rates.”
In the first few months of the pandemic, the only reason someone could be evicted was if they were a “serious nuisance,” such as someone who was selling drugs out of the home. That exemption led to a couple dozen landlords each week filing eviction complaints in court, including one against Watson’s mother for allegedly smoking in the apartment. A judge threw out that complaint, ruling that the allegation was not serious enough to pose direct harm to other tenants or damage the premises.
Shortly after the governor added another exemption in May — allowing evictions if the landlord intends to occupy the unit themselves — the owner again filed for Watson to be evicted because, “I sold my primary residence due to financial hardship.”
All these exemptions have led the state’s current eviction levels to return to about one-third of what they were before pandemic.
With a deluge of low-wage workers unemployed as the economic impact of the public health emergency drags into a tenth month, evictions are expected to surge if the moratorium continues to be scaled back or thrown out. In the weeks preceding Lamont’s September executive order allowing evictions to resume against those who are six months or more behind on rent, there were roughly 40 eviction filings per week. Last week, landlords asked the courts to evict 151 families.
The federal order to halt some evictions issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that went into effect in September hasn’t had much of an impact, either, since the governor left it to the courts to determine if the order applies. Just 24 tenants in Connecticut have submitted the CDC declaration to try to stop their eviction.
Thousands more are on the cusp of losing their homes.
Nearly 39,000 renters in Connecticut are “likely” to face eviction in the next two months, the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent bi-weekly COVID-19 impact survey shows. That’s one out of every 12 renter households facing eviction. Another 69,000 families were behind on rent, which is one in seven households.
In a typical year, about 20,000 eviction complaints are filed.
A racial justice issue
Watson was well aware that as a Black person she was more likely to catch COVID-19, but she needed to work.
When her hours were significantly scaled back at Homewood Suites, she started grooming a couple of dogs a week out of her second-floor apartment, but it was really only enough to buy food and pay one of her many bills. Then she was laid off, and she has been struggling to collect unemployment ever since. She eventually landed a new job at a factory sorting mail and packages, but during her first week on the job, she started feeling sick.
Two days later, on Nov. 26, Watson found out she had COVID-19, and soon she was in the emergency room, struggling to breathe.
“I’m home now, just trying to get better,” she said the next day, uncertain how much longer she could call the two-bedroom apartment in the center of Stratford home.
In Connecticut, data show Black people are 86% more likely to catch the coronavirus and 2.5 times more likely to die from it.
They need more money in the program. Do I have to say it? It’s a no-brainer.”
Experts cite a host of reasons for the higher death rates among people of color. Minorities are more likely to have underlying health conditions such as diabetes and asthma, their jobs are more likely to put them at risk of getting the virus, they have unstable housing and are more likely to be evicted, and often don’t have good access to health care.
In Connecticut, Black and Latino households are twice as likely to rent than own, and renters’ income is typically less than half of homeowners — making these groups more vulnerable to eviction before the pandemic even began.
“Black women renters are the highest risk,” according to the recent article to which several Yale professors contributed. “Eviction during the COVID-19 pandemic perpetuates health inequity among Black and Latinx people and women. … Protecting public health during the pandemic requires protecting those most likely to contract, spread, and die from COVID-19, especially people in poverty and people of color, who are more likely to be evicted and more likely to suffer severe harm during the pandemic. Public health and health justice require that all people have equal opportunity to achieve good health and protect themselves from COVID-19.”
Help on the way?
Blindsided that a marshal would be back in four days with a truck to move her belongings into storage, Watson – who was in quarantine – asked a friend to go to the courthouse on Dec. 3 to get more information and find out if any help was available. A clerk confirmed that a judge had granted her landlord’s request that Watson and her mom be removed from the dwelling and gave her friend the hotline number for Connecticut Legal Services to get free legal advice.
Watson called the hotline, and it led to her getting what only one out of every 15 people facing eviction get: an attorney to represent them in court.
Attorneys at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, who took her case for free, say they found a host of problems with Watson’s case: Her eviction notice was delivered to the wrong apartment; the owner said she needed to move into the unit because she had sold her home, but the sale hasn’t gone through yet; and the owner erroneously submitted paperwork saying Watson’s dwelling was not protected by the federal eviction moratorium ordered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Watson’s landlord did not return calls from the CT Mirror, and the landlord’s attorney declined to comment.
“We learned a lot about exactly the problems that we are going to face in the next couple of weeks and months. We found a lot of flaws in the system here. So much fell through the cracks,” said Kemple.
Watson’s case also exposed that local public health departments and state marshals believe they have no authority to delay move-out eviction orders for those infected with COVID-19.
“Their answer was a shrug of the shoulders — ‘Well, we can’t do anything,’” said Kemple, whose team was told marshals have already moved out people with COVID-19. “If they are trying to protect the public from the very easily spreadable virus, they have a lot more power. … They have an independent obligation to help stop the spread of the virus when they can, and they took the position that ‘We are only following orders from the courts.’”
With a state marshal scheduled to return with a moving truck the next morning, Watson’s attorneys filed an emergency order on Dec. 3 asking the judge to postpone his eviction order until she recovers from COVID-19.
That evening, Superior Court Judge Walter Spader ordered marshals not to evict Watson until he heard the case the next morning — or until her and the landlord’s “very experienced” attorneys could reach an arrangement.
“It was on hold, until further order of the court, not to do anything. So that order is still in effect. Nothing will happen, Ms. Watson,” said Spader on Dec. 4.
A few days later, the attorneys reached an agreement that Watson and her mother will move out by Feb. 1.
The governments’ roles
It would cost an additional $122 million to $222 million to shield the 77,000 to 161,000 households in Connecticut that still face eviction, according to an analysis completed by Stout, the financial advisory firm.
With the federal money it received early in the pandemic, the state set up a rental assistance program to give up to $4,000 each to roughly 11,500 families. Overwhelmed with demand, the state stopped accepting new applications for that program Dec. 3.
There are no immediate plans from the federal government to pass another economic relief stimulus package, and the funding it sent early in the pandemic leaves a staggering amount of households still in need.
For those who are evicted, the state intends to spend an additional $8.5 million of the federal COVID-relief money it received to expand a separate program that provides down-payment assistance and help securing an apartment with discounted rent. Made aware of Watson’s case, the state’s housing commissioner has paved the way for her to get into the program, but many others will not be as lucky.
The state is also planning to set up a separate eviction-prevention program by the end of the month that will spend $5.3 million of the federal money to negotiate with some of the landlords who have filed an eviction complaint.
“If we have a person that we cannot help through the rent relief program because of other issues, like this case, then we can refer them to 2-1-1” hotline, said Mosquera-Bruno. “We have a lot of resources in different parts, so what we’re trying to do is coordinate those so that if a person doesn’t get the rent relief, then the person will be helped [through the 2-1-1 hotline] on the rapid rehousing and with the eviction prevention program. We have tried to connect all the dots. We’re not always successful, but that’s the goal.”
On the day Watson was initially set to be evicted from her apartment, a coalition of 100 organizations and housing advocates wrote the governor to ask that he extend the existing moratorium and funnel an additional $100 million in state aid for rental assistance.
“The displacement caused by eviction will exacerbate public health at the very time that the Coronavirus is surging. No one wants thousands of families, many of whom are impacted by job loss or ill health, to be put out of their homes and forced to try to find space in shelters or double up in close quarters while a deadly pandemic grows worse,” they wrote.
The state also appears to have a brewing problem with landlords, who are frustrated the administration hasn’t done enough to offset their losses.
John Souza, the owner of 280 apartments in Hartford, Windsor and West Hartford and president of the Connecticut Property Owners Association, said there is a lot of anger and frustration among landlords who are unable to evict tenants until they fall six months behind on rent. The state’s rental assistance program has helped some landlords, but many more are left with tenants who aren’t paying rent and no help from the state.
“They need more money in the program. Do I have to say it? It’s a no-brainer,” he said. “There are a lot of people who are unhappy, I can tell you that. It is building up. Every landlord that I have talked to has been affected to some degree. … Something has to be done. I don’t think landlords should have to shoulder this burden alone.”
The state does not intend to help those identified by landlords as taking advantage of the eviction moratorium, the housing commissioner said.
“Now there are a group of people that we will not be able to help,” she said of those who owe rent from either before the pandemic began or those who are at least six months behind on rent. “Some people didn’t pay the rent [from] March to now. These are the people that took the moratorium as not paying rent, although they were receiving income from unemployment. We’re not going to be able to help them.”