The coronavirus put Connecticut and the world in an economic tailspin one year ago. The CT Mirror began a three-part series last Monday that mapped the damage that has fallen primarily on low-wage workers and the neighborhoods they live in and the lack of improvement for months. Today, an exploration of Connecticut’s current housing situation, the hot housing market and its impact on the poor. Coming next week: the face of hunger has changed during the pandemic.
This is the story of the state’s uneven recovery — so far.
Last November, Nicolas Rodriguez and his wife Carmen had to scale back their hours at the medical equipment factory where they have worked for 21 years.
He never fully recovered his lung capacity after catching COVID-19 in the fall, and coughing and gasping for breath keeps him up most nights. His wife has been sick for months and needs another surgery on her gallbladder, but the high deductible for her first surgery, along with the mortgage on their Hamden home, drained their savings.
Anxiety cripples him. He can’t pay for the next surgery his wife needs or the mortgage for the home his three children need. Nicolas and Carmen are undocumented immigrants and don’t qualify for state health insurance, they earn too much to get help from any of the nearby hospitals’ charitable programs, and Nicolas was turned away when he sought mortgage assistance from the state.
“I’m really feeling a lot of pressure about how to pay all of these bills and cover the costs,” Rodriguez said. “I tapped into my savings. I’ve spent all of my savings to keep up with the mortgage. I don’t even want to think about how I’m going to make the payments in the future. I’m living day-to-day. We’re living paycheck-to-paycheck. It’s terrifying.”
The Rodriguez family is not alone.
Across Connecticut, lower-income families are facing foreclosure at higher rates, renters are facing a wave of evictions, and a hot housing market and ever-changing banking rules are putting home-ownership further out of reach. Federal aid might help, but the problems have deep roots — and in many ways, the coronavirus pandemic has only made things worse.
The pandemic hurt lower-income residents, and the housing boom is no help
The brunt of the housing insecurity that was brought on by the pandemic is primarily falling on certain families and neighborhoods. It’s easy to understand how it happens — lower-income families have less of a financial cushion, and when they lose their jobs or have to cut their hours at work, paying the bills quickly becomes an issue.
At least one out of every 14 residential mortgages in Connecticut was delinquent or in foreclosure in February, the 13th-highest rate in the United States and well above the state’s pre-pandemic level, according to the real estate data firm Black Knight.
But in ZIP codes in Connecticut where more people of color live, there are much higher rates of people behind on their mortgages or in forbearance, a special agreement with the lender to avoid foreclosure, data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta show. For example, in the Hill neighborhood in New Haven, one out of every nine residential mortgages was behind in November, compared to one in 31 mortgages a few miles away in Branford.
In Southwest Connecticut, one out of every six homeowners with a Federal Housing Association mortgage — designed for low- to moderate-income borrowers — were seriously behind on Aug. 31, the seventh-highest rate of the country’s 169 largest metro areas, according to an analysis of federal data by the conservative think-tank the American Enterprise Institute. In New Haven and its nearby suburbs, one in eight FHA homeowners were behind, the 22nd-highest rate in the country.
Things haven’t improved since late August. The Connecticut Fair Housing Center reports that one in six FHA loans are seriously delinquent in Southwest Connecticut and one in seven in the New Haven region. The civil rights organization estimates that during the next 18 months, the normal number of FHA foreclosures will swell by at least 6,000. Given that FHA mortgages make up 20% of Connecticut’s housing market, the number of people more than 90 days behind on their mortgages offers some insight into how profoundly the pandemic has affected the state’s lower-income homeowners, said Jeff Gentes, an attorney at the center specializing in foreclosure prevention.
“This give us a sense of how pronounced the fallout will be,” Gentes said. “The question is, have we provided enough income support for some people and temporary mortgage relief to stave off a housing market-triggered recession?”
All this is happening in a state that had high housing costs, segregation, and some of the largest home-ownership gaps in the nation. And the hot housing market that has been celebrated by Gov. Ned Lamont and many others is putting homeownership farther out of reach for more lower- and moderate-income residents trying to buy a home. A massive 32% drop in the supply of homes for sale throughout Connecticut, coupled with the influx of buyers, has driven up the average sale price 50% and is causing bidding wars.
Amy Bergquist, a Hartford resident and real estate broker, said that in a normal market, about 10% of the home she sells or buys would have multiple offers. Of the 22 homes she has sold or has closed this year, only one did not have multiple offers. Two weeks ago, her client offered $15,000 above asking price for a single-family home in South Windsor but was outbid by one of the 21 other offers that were made on the property. Well-off cash buyers are able to box out those who rely on a mortgage, and sometimes the appraisals aren’t matching what the home is selling for, so some are struggling to secure a mortgage.
“I’ve had people bid $70,000 over on houses this spring and not win because they’ve been outbid,” said Bergquist of homes listed for sale in the mid-$400,000 range. “These are my stories, but hundreds of agents across the state have very similar stories to me. I’m in a Facebook group of agents, and every day, everyone’s lamenting, ‘My clients are bidding 40, 50, 10’s of thousands over asking price — and they’re losing.'”
She suspects the prices aren’t going back down.
“This might be the new floor,” she said.
The rising costs are worrisome for Leslie Hammond, a real estate broker in the Hartford region, who believes lower-income and working-class families are being priced out of buying a home.
“They can’t compete with these other buyers. Some of the other buyers are cash buyers, some have 10% down, 20% down, and the seller is going to go for who they are sure everything’s going to work out, and the highest price. And then if the buyer asks for closing costs, they’re definitely getting shut out,” she said. “When I hear that there are 12 buyers and people are bidding $20,000 over asking price, that makes me really concerned.”
State data are showing that fewer lower-income residents are buying homes, specifically with Connecticut Housing Finance Authority mortgages, which typically help get first-time, lower-income residents into a home. The number of CHFA mortgages closed in 2020 was nearly half of previous years.
“The competitive market may have squeezed out low- and moderate-income borrowers who don’t have access to as many resources as higher-income borrowers,” said Nandini Natarajan, the chief executive officer of the quasi-public state agency. “That is of concern to us. We are looking at the reasons and ways we could mitigate that.”
In his budget address in February, Lamont listed “a more affordable Connecticut” as a top priority for this legislative session.
“Over the last year, we’ve experienced a real estate boom in Connecticut, with tens of thousands of new residents discovering … Connecticut is a beautiful state,” he said of the 24,000 additional families moving into the state in 2020 compared to 2019. When asked about how to make Connecticut affordable and an attractive place to live, Lamont regularly makes the point that he wants more residents to tax rather than raising taxes on those who are here.
In Lamont’s budget, he recommended appropriating $150 million next year to construct subsidized affordable housing, an amount that will help to slightly blunt steady declines in the amount of affordable housing construction being funded by the Department of Housing. The administration submitted no proposed legislation aimed at tackling the larger systemic issues driving up housing costs.
Help on the way?
When Rodriguez cut his hours in half as the effects of COVID lingered, he went to his lender to ask permission to miss some payments and not face foreclosure. He proposed tacking on the payments to the end of his mortgage.
Instead, what his bank offered him was a three month forbearance — and a balloon payment due after those 90 days.
“I was given the forbearance, but where did it get me? Forbearance is only postponing the payments? At the end of the day, I’m just strapped with a bigger debt than I had in the first place,” he said.
He called the state to see if he qualified for the pandemic mortgage assistance program — $10 million in federal pandemic aid that the state set aside last June — but was turned away.
“The answer was there’s no help for homeowners. There’s only help for renters. And so it seems like all the doors are closed, and it’s terrifying,” he said.
Of the 976 families that sought assistance through the program, only three households received mortgage assistance, totaling $37,000. Anyone whose lender offered a forbearance program did not qualify, and 86% of applicants had that option, a key factor in the low participation rate. The remainder was returned to the state’s coffers.
Congress and regulators early in the pandemic required lenders of federally backed mortgages to offer deferral options to homeowners and prescribed rules to prevent balloon payments for many of those mortgages. It has helped — foreclosures are way down, even though many people aren’t getting the mortgage relief they were promised.
But Connecticut homeowners whose mortgages are not federally backed and lenders who are regulated by the state Department of Banking — about 25% of all mortgages in the state — have not been required to provide such protections. These lenders in Connecticut include Well Fargo and Webster Bank.
“There’s no rules. This is the wild, wild west,” said Gentes, who believes homeowners with non-federally backed mortgages are disproportionately Black and Hispanic. “So some of them are offering pretty good forbearance, or they’re more willing to put things on hold.”
The governor and the banking commissioner early in the pandemic reached an agreement with several of those lenders to voluntarily offer forbearance options, but that program expired months ago, and several lenders did not participate, including Wells Fargo. The Department of Banking, however, doesn’t believe it’s an issue.
“Even though technically the agreement that banks would follow if they wanted to participate in the program, when they get consumers and their customers ask for it, they’re still honoring it. I don’t have data as to whether that’s across the board,” said Matt Smith, a spokesman for the agency.
Smith added that balloon payments on federally backed mortgages after a forbearance “shouldn’t be happening. Those mortgage payments should have been at the end of the mortgage.” He added that the department believes that a state program to require banks to offer certain forbearance options wasn’t necessary because most non-federally backed mortgage lenders were already offering forbearance options akin to the federal rules.
Legislation that would have required such protections failed to make it out of the banking committee, Gentes said.
Mortgage assistance is on the way — but will it help communities of color?
The stakes to get this right are higher for communities of color.
That’s because just as the economic impact of the pandemic has disproportionately fallen on communities of color, so too has the inability of Black and Latino resident to pay their mortgages. The U.S. Census Bureau’s bi-weekly surveys of households have repeatedly reported that Connecticut’s white residents are at least four times more likely to be caught up on their mortgage payments than Black and Latino residents.
Officials at the Department of Housing said while they haven’t determined yet how they plan to use the new round of federal pandemic recovery funding to keep people in their homes, they believe it will help prevent many foreclosures and people becoming homeless. Housing Commissioner Seila Mosquera-Bruno said it is hard to know whether it will entirely erase all the missed payments.
Gentes estimates roughly $100 million is headed for the state for mortgage assistance from the Homeowners Assistance Fund approved recently by Congress. That aid must go to those with a loan of less than $550,000 and whose income is under the median income of the region where they live.
“We hope it will have a big impact,” she said.
But historically, it hasn’t turned out well for certain communities during previous housing crises.
“Universally, we as a country have historically recovered our white neighborhoods and our white households after disasters very well,” said Fionnuala Darby-Hudgens, director of operations for the CT Fair Housing Center, pointing to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Great Recession. “In the 2008 foreclosure crisis, we recovered and repaired white neighborhoods at a much greater rate, and the data show that Black and Latinx homeowners in Connecticut have yet to recover from that foreclosure crisis.”
There’s also legislation that is gaining some momentum that vies to chip away at historical discrimination that has prevented Black and Latino residents from purchasing a home and generating wealth — and narrow the state’s worst-in-the-nation homeownership rates among its Black and Latino residents and white people. That bill — dubbed “Baby Bonds” — would have the state invest $5,000 for every child born into poverty so that by the time they reach age 18 they would have an estimated $16,000 to spend purchasing a home or going to college.
“It will help families to break the cycle of poverty,” said state Treasurer Shawn Wooden, one of the bill’s chief proponents. “It will help level the playing field no matter what the ZIP code.”
A surge of evictions is looming, and many are happening already, despite the federal and state eviction moratoriums.
Thousands have faced eviction since the pandemic began, but Latino residents are three times as likely to face eviction as white residents, according to a CT Mirror analysis of eviction records that could be matched to Census tracts. And while evictions are happening in nearly every community, residents living in the state’s lowest-income communities are facing evictions much more frequently. In Bridgeport, for example, 778 households have faced eviction, compared to 58 next door in Fairfield and 30 in Westport, court data tracked daily by Fair Housing show. That means renters in Bridgeport are being evicted at almost twice the rate as renters in Fairfield and Westport, a CT Mirror analysis shows.
Exceptions to the moratorium — such as if the landlord wants to use the rental unit as their primary residence, or if the tenant is at least six months behind on rent — have led to evictions reaching about half the level they were before the pandemic. But as the economic fallout of the pandemic continues, housing advocates worry more people will reach the six-month threshold and face eviction.
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 moratoriums, the COVID-19 incidences those states 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. Those being impacted the most by evictions are Black and Hispanic residents, the same population more likely to contract and die from the virus.
An influx of federal recovery aid for rental assistance — $424 million — aims to help clear the backlog of missed rent. In the first three weeks the program has been open, more than 8,000 people applied and 15 have been processed and approved for payment. The state has already receive $235 million of this aid and is expected to get another $189 million in the latest federal recovery package Congress passed.
But some landlords are hesitant to participate because the program — UniteCT — will pay only six months in missed rent, and many tenants are behind more than that, said John Souza, the leader of the Connecticut Property Owners Association. Fair housing attorneys have complained that the state is not explicit about whether it will provide rental assistance if the landlord refuses to participate or whether the program is open to undocumented immigrants. During an interview, the state’s housing commissioner said undocumented immigrants are eligible, the program is available for those whose landlords will not participate, those who need to move elsewhere and those who need help with rent.
Souza said the eviction moratorium put into place is hurting low-income communities more than it is helping the renters that the moratorium aims to help. He said landlords are going to fall into foreclosure, and the home that they rent is going to become blighted and an eyesore. For those landlords who remain, they are going to be more strict about whom they will rent to.
“It just becomes a long drawn-out system. The people that are hurt the most are of course going to be the people in the low-income neighborhoods, let’s be honest,” he said. “Property is going to either fall into disrepair, blight, you know, they rip the plumbing out, and then that property’s going to be offline for six months to a year or two years until it gets redone. And unfortunately, landlords are raising their standards. They don’t want to take any chances. They’ve gotten really hurt from this whole thing,” said Souza. “This is a tale of two cities, and in the lower income neighborhoods, they will be hurt the worst.”