When Gov. Ned Lamont gave his last televised COVID-19 briefing, he cautioned against declaring victory over the pandemic prematurely – analogous to George W. Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech, delivered before the majority of the Second Iraq War’s casualties had occurred. Now, just a few weeks later, Connecticut finds itself at a similar crossroads when it comes to housing.
With tens of thousands of Connecticut families still behind on their rent payments, the governor is declaring the state’s rental assistance program, UniteCT, to be a success. Fewer than 2,000 households have been paid out by the program — only a small fraction of the 100,000 renter households the U.S. Census Bureau estimates have no or little confidence than can make rent, and the state has spent just $12.8 million of the $457 million that the federal government has granted for rent relief in Connecticut.
Part of the Lamont administration’s COVID-19 response strategy was to listen to the experts and be guided by the data. We hope the administration will continue to do this as it addresses the continuing housing impacts of COVID-19. With the eviction moratorium set to end on June 30, more must be done to better connect property owners and renters to these resources and prevent thousands of unnecessary evictions.
First, the state must do better in reaching out to tenants, landlords, and community leaders to get the message out about UniteCT. The Department of Housing has invested significant resources in hiring hundreds of staff and working to catch-up on the backlog of applicants. They’ve put out local advertising and set up a Mobile UniteCT bus that has been traveling around the state. But it’s just not enough.
The requirements to access UniteCT funding have changed over time – not the state’s fault, as these are federal guidelines – and the process has become easier to engage with. Unfortunately, many landlords and tenants are still operating off of outdated information. Notably, the state no longer requires landlords to forgive a portion of each UniteCT recipient’s rental debt. Both landlords and tenants will be paid in full. Eligibility and documentation requirements have been streamlined. Another crucial problem is that many tenants do not know they are eligible for the state’s rent relief program or that the program even exists.
The state must invest more in widespread advertising and even door-to-door outreach. Contracting with more local service agencies so that they may hire more outreach workers to put feet on the street and enact a broader ground-game is critical. When designing a well-funded, multifaceted marketing campaign for UniteCT, the state can draw on its own experience in disaster recovery. After Hurricane Sandy hit the Connecticut coast in 2012, the state embarked on a successful marketing campaign to make residents aware of the resources available to them. A similar effort is needed to make full use of the federal funding for rent relief during the state’s COVID recovery.
Second, the state must also include safeguards for tenants who are entered into the eviction process. Even with the eviction moratorium in place, approximately 670 Connecticut tenants were evicted last month due to exceptions and loopholes included within the moratorium. Already, many people who are passing through the eviction courts could, and should, have the ability to access UniteCT funding to resolve their current rental debts.
The Department of Housing is making some in-roads here with informed mediators and eviction specialists, but the Lamont Administration must work with the state’s Judicial Department to develop a clear process to resolve eviction filings by connecting landlords and eligible tenants to UniteCT before judgments are issued. A similar process is in the works for foreclosures to allow for federal homeowner assistance funds to work. Eviction is expensive for landlords and has long-term impacts for tenants. If the eviction process can be paused to allow UniteCT resources to work, the funding can ensure that eligible tenants remain housed, and that landlords are fully compensated for lost rent going back to March 13, 2020.
If the state does not invest more in getting the word out about UniteCT in the next few weeks, the effects on Connecticut’s tenants and landlords could be disastrous. Should the eviction moratorium expire before more tenants and landlords are effectively connected to rental assistance, CT Fair Housing Center projects that between 4,400 and 12,000 Connecticut tenants could be evicted every month – evictions that could largely be prevented and landlords made whole with rental assistance. It is extremely difficult for tenants with an eviction record to find housing, and people of color are at the greatest risk of suffering catastrophic effects once the eviction moratorium ends. Many families find themselves faced with extreme debt accrued during the pandemic, and eviction would put them at acute risk for homelessness. Landlords could face foreclosure on their properties due to unpaid back rent; in short, failure to quickly connect UniteCT funds to the people who need them would create a situation in which nobody wins.
Fortunately, the state still has time to act, but it must act quickly.
While the state celebrates its progress in combating the coronavirus, we cannot let eviction cases replace COVID cases. Housing advocates have long warned that, without an adequate rent relief program, the end of the eviction moratorium could have disastrous effects on tenants. The state has delayed this crisis by extending the eviction moratorium; however, it still has not solved the root cause. Fortunately, we can still do so, but it will take a rapid shift in how the UniteCT program is marketed and a willingness to work with our judicial system to use the hundreds of millions in resources Connecticut has been granted.
Kiley Gosselin is Executive Director of the Partnership for Strong Communities.