Denise Martinez, right, community outreach coordinator at New Opportunities, explains the UniteCT program to a landlord who didn't want to be named. The rental assistance program requires application from both tenants and landlords.
Denise Martinez, right, community outreach coordinator at New Opportunities, explains the UniteCT program to a landlord who didn't want to be named. The rental assistance program requires application from both tenants and landlords. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

The state pulled more than 20,000 incomplete rental assistance applications from consideration last week – the vast majority of which lacked only information from one party – underscoring the need for more help as Connecticut residents recover from the pandemic.

The state program required information from both the landlord and the tenant. Only about 500 applications lacked information from both parties, meaning in other cases, the applicant who completed their paperwork didn’t get assistance because their landlord or tenant didn’t finish their portion.

UniteCT, which provides assistance to people who fell behind on rent payments during the COVID-19 pandemic, launched in March 2021. The federally funded program has helped more than 37,000 households by providing payments to nearly 8,500 landlords. The state set a deadline of March 31, 2022 to complete applications.

Congress approved funding for the program in two rounds, aiming to prevent a deluge of evictions earlier in the pandemic when many lost income during shutdowns. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also issued a since-overturned moratorium on most evictions for nonpayment of rent, citing a need to keep people out of congregate living centers such as homeless shelters to stop the virus’ spread.

“The UniteCT program, per programmatic guidelines from US Treasury, was designed to operate as an emergency rent relief program,” spokesman Aaron Turner said in an emailed statement. “To that end, we believe the program has operated as intended, which was to respond to the emergency.”

Across the country, including in Connecticut, the need for help paying rent has outpaced available dollars, experts have said. Eviction filings have been rising in Connecticut for the past few months.

Barbara Shaw, executive director at nonprofit Hands on Hartford, said her organization has already started seeing more requests for services from people struggling to make rent. The group has a small rent assistance fund, and Shaw said she’s been getting several calls per week, some of them from people who are “really quite desperate.” 

In February, the group got 115 calls from people seeking help with housing-related expenses. In March, that number more than doubled to 245 calls, Shaw said.

The state Department of Housing plans to apply for more UniteCT funding through the U.S. Department of Treasury later this month, Turner said. The federal government has reallocated money from states that were slower to dole out their dollars to a handful of other states.

The program had about $400 million set aside for rental and utility assistance. Nearly $245 million has been given out, and the rest is marked as “payments in progress” on a state dashboard. The state offers up to $15,000 in assistance per household.

UniteCT stopped accepting new applications in February. 

Applicants whose cases were thrown out received either a text message or an email April 1 showing that their statuses had been changed from “in progress” to “closed,” Turner said.

About 9,500 cases were closed because the landlords were waiting for their tenants to complete applications. Close to 500 were closed because neither party finished their portion, Turner said.

Landlords, some of whom waited months without receiving rental payments, have complained about difficulties getting money through the program because of delays, uncooperative tenants and a lack of communication.

But the largest number – about 10,700 – were closed because tenants were waiting for their landlords to complete the applications, Turner said in an email.

Attorneys who represent tenants in eviction cases have said that many landlords are reluctant to participate in the program.

Pamela Heller, a staff attorney at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, said she had a client whose application was closed because her out-of-state landlord didn’t complete the application.

“We have had calls from people within the last week who have stated ‘My landlord hasn’t participated.’ At least a couple last week that had that pattern,” Heller said.

As the state’s program stopped accepting new applications, some shelters and service providers have said they’ve seen more need.

At places like Hands on Hartford, there are also more people coming into day shelters because many of the winter shelters and warming centers have closed for the season, Shaw said. 

They’ve seen about 50 to 60 more people coming to the day center per week for a place to stay, use the restroom or charge a phone.

“We believe strongly that all of us humans need a safe, secure place to call home, for ourselves, for our spouses or our children or grandchildren,” she added. “This has always been a concern but it’s gotten worse since COVID, since UniteCT [stopped accepting new applications], since the eviction moratorium.”

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Ginny MonkHousing and Children's Issues Reporter

Ginny is CT Mirror's children's issues and housing reporter a Report for America corps member. She covers a range of topics, from education and child welfare to affordable housing and zoning. Ginny grew up in Arkansas and graduated from the University of Arkansas' Lemke School of Journalism in 2017. She began her career at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette where she covered housing, homelessness, and juvenile justice on the investigations team. Along the way Ginny was awarded a 2019 Data Fellowship through the Annenberg Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California. She moved to Connecticut in 2021 and covered housing for Hearst Connecticut Media.