Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of Connecticut residents faced the unthinkable tragedy of potentially losing their homes in the middle of a public health crisis. Even in normal times, over 10,000 Connecticut residents are evicted every year.
Although both the state and the CDC have implemented moratoria on evictions, these policies contain significant exceptions, which have allowed for over 6,000 eviction filings over the course of the pandemic. Many of these casualties of the pandemic likely added to the nearly 3,000 individuals who were already experiencing homelessness in the state in 2020.
S.B. 194: An Act Establishing a Right to Housing, which is under consideration in the Connecticut General Assembly, can be the first step to protecting our neighbors who are currently experiencing homelessness or who are unstably housed.
On a daily basis, homeless individuals face challenges including criminalization for simply sleeping or resting, threat of private harassment and violence, and difficulty obtaining jobs, school, training, banking, or other benefits due to lack of address. The pandemic has created additional burdens. Those living on the streets or doubled up in housing are unable to follow public health distancing guidelines or even wash their hands, resulting in greater susceptibility to COVID-19.
Both the state and federal governments have responded to this crisis with temporary measures to alleviate homelessness, such as housing individuals in vacant hotel rooms using state or FEMA funding. However, even after the pandemic ends and these programs expire, Connecticut’s housing crisis will remain. It is imperative that the state take steps to build on our recognition that safe, stable, and affordable housing is a necessity by creating permanent solutions to ensure access to housing.
S.B. 194 can be the first step toward this goal. The bill states that it is the goal of this state to recognize the right to housing—which includes protection from housing loss, safe housing that meets all basic needs, housing affordability, rehousing assistance, and the recognition of special circumstances impacting access to housing, such as race, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, veteran status, and more.
Under the bill, the state can choose the methods it uses to realize the right to housing, but the initial recognition of the right ensures that the state prioritizes resources toward ensuring adequate housing for all of its residents. Recognizing adequate housing does not mean that the state is obligated to immediately provide a single-family home to everyone in Connecticut overnight. Implementing the right to housing will involve some immediate action as well as a clear plan for the future that the state can hold itself accountable to. Available resources include legal and regulatory frameworks which do not cost the state anything to implement, and theoretically, the state could achieve its obligations purely through creative regulation, for example, strong inclusionary zoning requirements. The availability of additional federal COVID-19 relief funding could also be used to supplement state and local funding.
There is precedent for this kind of initiative in Connecticut. In 2014, Gov. Dannel Malloy announced the state’s goal of ending homelessness among veterans. By prioritizing housing support, coordinating care across agencies and community partners, and taking advantage of federal funding opportunities, Connecticut reduced veteran homelessness until only two years later, the federal government certified that the state had effectively ended veteran homelessness. While this designation does not mean that there are never veterans going without shelter for the night, it does mean that the state’s veterans are either housed or able to be rapidly housed when they request services. The success of this effort was largely credited to its focus on permanent housing solutions, which SB 194 seeks to emulate.
Also similar to the veteran homelessness initiative, SB 194 recognizes that for some groups, there are special circumstances that make them more likely to experience homelessness. In addition to recognizing the right to housing, SB 194 creates a committee to study and advise on the implementation of the right. In addition to housing experts, this committee will be led by people with lived experience of homelessness and those from communities most impacted by homelessness, ensuring that all voices are heard.
The pandemic has made the inadequacy of our current system painfully clear, and Connecticut has the opportunity to lead the way forward. Around the country, elected leaders are discussing the right to housing in America. Connecticut should take the first step and affirmatively proclaim this right for its residents so that we can move toward a reality where everyone has a safe, stable, affordable place to call home.
Eric Tars is the Legal Director at the National Homelessness Law Center, which is the only national advocacy organization dedicated solely to using the power of the law to end and prevent homelessness in America. Steve Kennedy is a Legal Intern at the Law Center and the Legislative Director of The People’s Parity Project at UConn Law.