With an anticipated tsunami of evictions when the pandemic-inspired moratoriums are lifted, the state House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted Tuesday to provide attorneys for low-income tenants facing displacement.
If passed in the Senate and signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont, Connecticut will become one of the first states to provide those facing eviction with the right to counsel. Washington adopted the change earlier this year, and a similar bill awaits the governor’s signature in Maryland.
“I’m really excited that this chamber will vote on a really important piece of legislation that would help to support many of our residents who have fallen on hard times,” state Rep. Brandon McGee, co-chairman of the Housing Committee, said shortly before the bill was approved 109 to 38. Fifteen Republicans joined every Democratic state representative to vote in favor of the legislation.
Funding for the first two years of the program is anticipated to come from a sliver of the pandemic relief funds Connecticut received from the federal government. Lamont has recommended the legislature dedicate $20 million to pay for legal representation for 12,000 people facing eviction over the next two years.
“The pandemic put tens of thousands of Connecticut families behind on rent through no fault of their own. Governor Lamont is committed to keeping those families stably housed: first by creating one of the nation’s strongest eviction moratoriums, then by launching UniteCT to put nearly $500 million from the federal government to work for [rental assistance for] landlords and tenants, and now by proposing to level the playing field in housing court. Keeping families in their homes preserves public health and lays the foundation for a strong economic recovery,” Max Reiss, the Democratic governor’s spokesman said Tuesday.
The legislation passed by the House paves the way for the right to counsel to remain in place even after the federal money dries up — provided lawmakers can find the resources, said House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford.
“When this [eviction] moratorium goes away, you’re gonna have a mass amount of chaos, and I think having lawyers and housing specialists be involved in the process will help a lot. The question we don’t know is what happens two years from now. We don’t know what the demand will be two years from now, but I think the continuation of this program in the future is a big deal, and we’ll kind of see where we are after this tidal wave [that] unfortunatly is going to hit in the next couple of months,” Ritter told reporters Tuesday. “I think it’s a long term policy that I stand by, and so we’re putting it into statute prospectively. We just got to figure out the funding in year three.”
Reiss said the administration is open to continuing the program.
“The Lamont administration is committed to investing in what works. In two years, policymakers can evaluate extending the program based on new data and evidence made possible by the governor’s proposal,” he said.
Before the pandemic hit, nearly 20,000 people in the state faced evictions each year. Eviction rates in four Connecticut cities were among the highest in the nation in 2016, the most recent year analyzed by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. Waterbury ranked 22nd among the nation’s large cities, with six out of every 100 renters being evicted. Hartford ranked 29th, Bridgeport 39th and New Haven 69th. This does not include “informal evictions,” such as when a landlord asks a tenant to move.
For the thousands of state residents facing eviction each year, most have been left to navigate the housing court labyrinth alone, where a mistake in filing paperwork can result in homelessness.
In February, of the 180 cases where a judge approved an eviction request, 158 of the landlords had an attorney, compared to just 10 of the tenants. Only 7% of those facing eviction last fiscal year had an attorney.
Lower-income workers continue to suffer disproportionately from the economic fallout that accompanied the pandemic. There’s a racial justice component to this, as well, since those being impacted the most by evictions are Black and Hispanic residents who are twice as likely to rent than white people — the same population that’s more likely to contract and die from the virus.
Renters’ income is typically less than half of homeowners’.
It is unclear just how many people will face eviction in Connecticut after the moratoriums end, but the U.S. Census Bureau estimated mid-April that more than 30,000 people in the state will likely leave their homes in the next two months because they’re facing eviction.
The bill approved Tuesday would prioritize providing attorneys for those who make less than 80% of the state’s median household income, which is $80,000 for a family of four in Southwest Connecticut. If demand for the program is stronger than funds are available, the bill also allows priority to be given to those facing eviction in certain zip codes, those who are non-native English speakers, or those who have a disability.
“This funding will help a significant number of people facing eviction,” said Sarah White, a staff attorney for CT Fair Housing, whose organization joined others to lobby for the bill. “It’s not quite universal access. I think, at least in this period, as we come out of the pandemic and the program starts to work, it may not be quite enough money for that — but it is going to be a huge difference in tenants’ ability to access legal representation. I think two-thirds will hopefully be able to have legal representation and start to make an impact in reducing the eviction rate in our state.”
Help on the way?
The state and federal eviction moratoriums are both set to expire at the end of June, but could be extended again.
Lamont said last week he plans to extend the state’s moratorium through at least June so that the $423 million the state received from the federal government to provide rental assistance has a chance to be delivered and help more residents stay in their homes.
“We’re going to keep the ban on evictions a little bit longer. We’re getting the rent relief program really going now … but we need another month or two in order to be able to make sure tenants as well as landlords are taken care of,” Lamont said last Thursday.
A spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Housing said Monday that 376 applications for rental assistance have been completed and rent paid totaling $2.3 million. More than 9,000 people have completed the application.
Hon. James W. Abrams, who is chief administrative judge for civil matters, said in a statement that, “Once the moratoria expire, there may be some modest delays here and there in getting these new cases processed and mediated, but I’m confident that the in-court process will run smoothly. The number of cases being handled by the system will also most likely be ameliorated by the availability of funds through the Department of Housing, UNITE-CT program, which will hopefully help resolve many of these cases short of trial.”