You’ve got 10 minutes

Ten minutes. To cover the sleepless nights, the racing thoughts, the frantic Google searching for apartments at every spare moment. The bone-deep exhaustion from weeks and months of overtime. The way your children’s faces fall when you tell them they won’t have their own room anymore. The anxiety they feel at the prospect of leaving their friends behind and starting over at a new school. The hopelessness that washes over you when the doctor cites your living environment as the reason behind your respiratory problems. The rage that threatens to break out—despite your best attempts at composure—when they say “there’s nothing we can do” or “it’s simply economics” or “just move out.” 

Just 10 minutes at the Fair Rent Commission hearing to explain why a 10%, 20%, or 40% increase in rent should be considered “harsh and unconscionable.”

Back in the 1950s, Connecticut repealed its authorization for municipal rent control, shielding landlords from rent regulation for generations to come. In the 1960s and ’70s, tenants across the state organized to fight poor housing conditions, rising rents, evictions, and gentrification. In 1969, state legislators established Fair Rent Commissions (FRCs), which are appointed volunteer bodies capable of responding to tenant complaints and intended to “control and eliminate excessive rental charges” in towns and cities.

At the time, these commissions—most notably, Stamford’s—attracted some national attention for their effectiveness at curbing and even deterring excessive rent increases. Testimony records from the early era of these commissions reveal a robust and often militant tenants’ movement. Organized tenants also fought for their right to a home through eviction blockades, street protests, and public art.  

In 2021 and 2022, groups of renters at apartment complexes across Connecticut—still dealing with poor conditions, high rents, evictions, and gentrification—got together and started sharing with each other their housing struggles: The management companies who never respond. The security deposits you never get back. The neglected safety issues making you sick. The application fees, pet fees, parking fees, towing fees, late fees. The already-too-high rent that’s going up yet again. The faceless LLCs that seem to exist only on paper. The public agencies that don’t return calls. The politicians and their meaningless rhetoric. 

Many of these conversations turned into action. Some groups of neighbors picked a hefty term to describe themselves—union. If unionized workers fight for better conditions and greater economic power in the workplace, why can’t unionized tenants do the same at home? 

In 2022, desperate for change, newly formed tenant unions attempted to revive the legacy of CT’s Fair Rent Commissions, many of which have only survived on outdated websites, or not at all. Some municipalities, including Hartford, have yet to hold a hearing for the dozens of complaints submitted by these unions. Others, like Hamden, have revived their commissions but struggled to find their footing after years of dormancy. Most contemporary FRCs, usually under heavy influence from city staff attorneys, have tended to wield their powers within the narrowest possible scope.

At the FRC hearings I have attended and participated in, tenants have gone head-to-head with pricey attorneys, hired by the invisible landlords who own the property where they (and thousands of other people) reside, while being represented only by their fellow tenant union members. So far, sometimes, we have won.

Megalandlords, shielded by their legal team, battle working-class tenants, supported by their tenant union, for a judgment from a commission on the meaning of a fair rent. These hearings are a microcosm of our entire system of commodified housing.

In 2023, tenant unions and our allies will take the fight for fairer rents to the State Capitol. The Connecticut Tenants Union, and each of our affiliated local unions, will push for a 2.5% cap on annual rent increases, along with an expansion of “good cause” eviction protections to all tenants. 

Renters are fed up with the displacement, the insecurity, the systemic abuses, and the basic indignities, all suffered in the name of landlord profits. Rents in our state have increased an average of 20% in just two years. Capping rent increases and protecting tenants from no-cause evictions will serve as a vital and timely intervention in our grinding and rapidly accelerating system that treats housing —a basic human need— as an investment asset for the rich, rather than a right to which every person holds a claim.

In 1983, Arlene McCarthy testified in support of a bill that protected tenants from eviction other than for serious violations (which is similar to the good cause eviction bill we are now pushing for 40 years later). She said: “The tenants at Folly Brook Manor are wholeheartedly in support of any and all legislation which recognizes that tenants are human beings and first class citizens and are not the inanimate, valueless, and spiritless pieces of furniture landlords in present legislation [sic] seem to imply that they are.” Her words still resonate with many of the newly minted tenant unionists who are reviving this legacy in New Haven, Hamden, Hartford, Bloomfield, and other municipalities in Connecticut.

In 2023, the Connecticut tenants movement is back. Organized tenants will lead the way to transformative change in housing — from Fair Rent Commission hearings, to a statewide cap on rent increases, to safe, dignified, and truly affordable housing for all.

Luke Melonakos-Harrison of New Haven is a Tenant Organizer for the CT Tenants Union.