New Haven's Kim Hart, with Claudette Kidd: "Our purpose is to put the onus of evictions not on the tenant, but on the landlord." Thomas Breen | Neww Haven Independent

Hundreds of tenant rights organizers from across Connecticut gathered online to kickstart a new campaign focused on limiting annual rent increases — on the same day that two New Haven state legislators introduced a bill in Hartford that would cap such hikes at no more than 2.5 percent a year. 

The Connecticut Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and partnering organizations announced that proposed rent cap law and associated doorknocking effort during a Zoom-streamed meeting last Thursday.,

Roughly 225 people attended the ​“Cap The Rent CT” launch event to learn about the advocacy campaign, and to celebrate Thursday’s introduction of Proposed Senate Bill 138: ​“An Act Concerning Rent Stability and No-Fault Evictions.” 

That proposed law is co-sponsored by New Haven State Sen. Gary Winfield and State Rep. Robyn Porter, among others. If passed, it would limit rent increases in Connecticut to no more than 2.5 percent per year. It would also restrict ​“no-fault” evictions related to, for example, expired or invalid leases. 

The text of the proposed bill would amend Title 47a of the state general statues to ​“prohibit rent increases that exceed two and one-half per cent on an annual basis” and ​“establish rules for no-fault evictions and exceptions for such evictions.” The bill as proposed would not affect evictions related to nonpayment of rent or serious nuisances. So-called ​“no-fault” evictions are already prohibited in Connecticut for public housing and elderly tenants. 

No-fault evictions spiked in New Haven and across the state last year as pandemic-era eviction restrictions lifted. In 2022, according to the Independent’s review of New Haven eviction lawsuits, they accounted for 16.5 percent of all eviction lawsuits filed in the city.

At last Thursday’s Zoom meeting and campaign kickoff, housing activists from across Connecticut hailed the proposed bill as a critical protection from homelessness, gentrification, and exploitative housing arrangements.

“Our rent increases every year and our incomes do not,” said Hartford Tenants Union activist Sharon Terrell.

“Safe, stable, and healthy housing is a human right,” said Greta Blau, an organizer with the Hamden Tenants Union and Seramonte Tenants Union. ​“We have momentum now. We have a vibrant movement now, and the Hamden Tenants Union is here to fight to pass this crucial legislation now.”

The meeting marked the official launch of a new ​“Cap The Rent” campaign, championed by the DSA and tenants unions in New Haven, Hamden, and Hartford, alongside the Connecticut Fair Housing Center; SEIU locals 1199, 1973, and 2001; AAUP-CSU (state universities’ faculty union), El Pueblo Unido, Black and Brown United In Action, Citywide Youth Coalition, BPT Gen Now, Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance, Make The Road Connecticut, Recovery For All, NBRJC, and the Connecticut Legal Rights Project. 

Many of these same groups successfully advocated for the state’s passage two years ago of a ​“Right to Counsel” bill that boosts legal representation for eligible low-income tenants in certain zip codes across the state.

For the state legislative session that began in Hartford earlier this month, the coalition is now agitating for a 3 percent annual rent cap at maximum, which would apply both when tenants renew year-to-year leases and when a new tenant is moving into a previously-rented apartment. The bill introduced by Winfield and Porter would go a half-point further in capping rent increases at 2.5 percent a year.

As explained during Thursday’s meeting, organizers believe such a rent cap policy would help tenants avoid moving due to unmanageable rent hikes, while also preventing landlords from dramatically altering the affordability of properties in a gentrifying neighborhood.

“Tenants are having to live in their cars because of rent gouging,” said Sarah White, a DSA organizer and attorney with the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. She noted that California, Oregon, and 200 municipalities have adopted rent stabilization laws.

White said that organizers envision a rent cap that covers all housing units ​“except the truly small landlords, the one- to four-family houses where the landlord lives in the building.”

The Cap the Rent campaign is also seeking to ban no-fault evictions, which most frequently occur as ​“lapse-of-time” evictions, filed when a landlord refuses to renew a tenant’s lease. 

White argued that landlords have been increasingly deploying no-fault evictions ​“so they can gentrify properties” — by getting rid of a tenant with a rent-restricted voucher — ​“or even as retaliation for organizing.”

Black and Latino tenants, especially women, are significantly more likely than other tenants to face eviction in Connecticut.

Cap the Rent is planning to canvass tenants across the state with the goal of recruiting them as activists. They also plan on hosting weekly phone-banks to lobby state legislators on the matter.

Throughout the meeting, the Zoom chat function teemed with messages of support and enthusiasm.

“We all have the right to affordable houses to live,” wrote Sonia Hernandez.

Another participant, Paul Jenney, was more critical of the endeavor. ​“What does the landlord do when the taxes in the city go up, the water rate goes up, the cost of insurance goes up, the cost of snowplowing, lumber, etc., etc. There is no easy answer.”

Another attendee named Alvin Blount wrote in the chat: ​“As a small landlord there was no suggestions offered. But my thoughts. a rent cap will further hurt tenants. As you continue you drive out small landlords.”

New Haven affordable housing advocate and city Affordable Housing Commission member Claudette Kidd, meanwhile, wrote in the chat that the rent cap wouldn’t go far enough. She called for a limit on application fees for apartments and a prohibition on fees for applying to already leased apartments: ​“People are losing hundreds of dollars on application fees and getting nowhere with getting an apartment.”

After the meeting, local housing and hunger advocate Kim Hart, who also attended Thursday’s Zoom event, told the Independent about how rent raises have affected her relationships in New Haven. 

“Many of my close friends and family were forced to move to the Valley, to Derby, Ansonia, and then again to Meriden, Waterbury,” she said, either ​“through no fault eviction or they were forced out by the massive increases in rent.”

“Our purpose is to put the onus of evictions not on the tenant, but on the landlord,” she said. ​“Landlords have to prove why they evicted us” — why the tenant is at fault — ​“as opposed to a tenant saying why they shouldn’t be evicted.”

She believes that the community organizing effort itself will bring a positive change to New Haven neighborhoods, even if SB-138 doesn’t pass. She envisions a more inter-dependent neighborhood life, where residents can turn to one another for help: ​“The more that we move forward, the more that we talk, we can bring back the sense of community.”

This story was originally published Jan. 13, 2023, by the New Haven Independent.