A man speaks in front of a crowd of people.
Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, speaks at a Tuesday morning press conference in support of a bill to cap rent increases in Connecticut. Ginny Monk / ctmirror.org

Editor’s Note: This article is part of CT Mirror’s Spanish-language news coverage developed in partnership with Identidad Latina Multimedia.

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Hundreds of people signed up to speak Tuesday at a public hearing focused on a bill that would limit the amount landlords can increase rent annually, an attempt to address rising rents amid a larger housing crisis.

The public hearing covered two bills that cap annual rent increases for rental housing and at mobile home parks at 4% plus the consumer price index. But the bills outline broader philosophical questions the Housing Committee is considering this session in addition to highlighting real-world consequences for Connecticut residents.

“Housing is a human right, and it isn’t for profit,” said Victoria Ramos, a renter and member of the Hartford Tenants Union. She said she and her neighbors had experienced rent increases recently of up to 50%, putting her at risk of losing her home. 

She was homeless as a child and wants to keep her son from experiencing the same thing, she said.

House Bill 6588 would also require 90-day warnings of rent increases.

Ramos, like many who spoke in favor of House Bill 6588, said they wanted to see the addition of language that would ban landlords from increases between tenants and expanded protections against no-cause evictions, typically evictions that occur when a lease expires.

Tenants asked that the caps be lowered to 2.5% or 3%. During the public hearing and at a press conference earlier in the day, they said they’d been forced out of their homes, that their children had to get jobs and said often the housing was low-quality despite high prices.

Landlords said the bills would disincentivize housing providers from increasing the state’s housing stock or keeping existing units and would mean that landlords would have to bear increased costs that might surpass the amount set by the state.

Broader questions

The philosophical questions have been discussed throughout the session in the Housing Committee, particularly in reference to bills related to the landlord-tenant relationship. They have addressed the role of government in regulating rental contracts in a capitalist system and how to deal with the harm caused by unaffordable rents.

It was summarized in a simple exchange between ranking member Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, and Kenneth D. Delohery, president of the CT Manufactured Homeowner’s Alliance and a mobile home park resident.

While mobile home park residents often own the actual mobile home, they typically must pay rent on the land the home sits on.

“I know your thoughts on the free market,” Delohery told Sampson on Tuesday. “For us, the free market is the problem.”

The sentence drew applause from the crowd.

Rents have risen in Connecticut over the past year and since the pandemic began. In Hartford, data from Apartment List show that rents have risen by more than 17% since March 2020. In New Haven, the increase is listed at nearly 11%, and many tenants have reported much higher increases.

Tensions

The hours-long meeting, which was pushed later in the evening after technical problems delayed the start by several hours, grew tense at moments. The committee took a five-minute recess for a “disruption.”

Around that time, Sampson and Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, D-Hartford, had an exchange in the hallway outside the hearing room in the Legislative Office Building. “You have to learn how to respect people,” Gonzalez said. “I respect everyone, including you, Representative,” Sampson replied.

Committee chair Rep. Geoff Luxenberg, D-Manchester, called the meeting back to order and told members of the public and fellow legislators to conduct themselves in a “reasonable manner.”

“This committee has to function in a responsible, respectful manner, where decorum is preserved at all times,” Luxenberg said.

For some housing advocates in favor of the rent cap bill, the issue boils down to people versus profits and balance of power, said Luke Melonakos-Harrison, an organizer with Connecticut Tenants Union.

“If there’s going to be a conflict between people’s lives and the ability to generate profit off of private property — people or profit, that’s a moral question to me,” Melonakos-Harrison said. “Clearly, something is not working.”

To Rafie Podolsky, a long-term housing attorney and advocate, it’s an issue of consumer protection that has a long history in the state across many issues, he said. In fact, much of the United States’ rental housing was under rent caps following World War II.

Currently, California and Oregon have rent control in place, as well as several municipalities.

Sampson has spoken many times in the Housing Committee about the value of the free market and his desire to keep government regulations out of private contracts.

“I think it’s in direct contradiction to our American system of free-market-based principles that have given us the quality of life that we have,” Sampson said, regarding rent caps in a January meeting of the committee.

During Tuesday’s meeting, John O’Connor, a Central Connecticut State University professor, testified in favor of the bill. Sampson pushed back, suggesting that the idea isn’t legitimate.

“I’m desperately trying to find a solution to the problem using legitimate public policy and not simply suggesting that whatever feels good is going to solve the problem,” Sampson said. “I’m concerned — is that what they’re teaching at CCSU? That it’s OK to tell another person how much they’re supposed to realize from property that they own?”

O’Connor said he could ask whether legislators were more concerned with return on property than homelessness.

Economics

While the belief in the free market is often an ideal favored among Republicans, there’s a wider range of beliefs, even among those on the Housing Committee, said Rep. Tony Scott, R-Monroe, another ranking member, in an interview.

“I’m not sitting here saying that we should just let it be a free for all,” Scott said. “There should be protections for both the landlord when it comes to eviction situations but also the tenants when there’s things not happening that’s supposed to happen.”

He added that he believes that if parties enter into a contract in good faith, that contract should be respected with limited government intervention.

But for Scott, the issue is more focused on economics, he said. He’s concerned about the effects of a rent cap on housing stock and on landlords.

Several landlords came to express similar concerns about rising costs.

John Souza, president of the Connecticut Coalition of Property Owners, said in an interview that he’d support increased government subsidies for renters or more housing density before he’d support rent caps.

“Without the ability to increase rents to keep up with rising costs, landlords have little incentive to improve the property, and builders are discouraged from creating new housing stock,” Souza wrote in his public testimony.

Alison Rivera, another landlord, also spoke against the bill, saying landlords had experienced financial strains during the pandemic when many tenants couldn’t make rent, in addition to other experiences. She said money saved for her son’s future had to be spent on the business because of expenses.

“We are not slumlords,” Rivera said. “We are good people, we work hard. We are all stressed out.”

The tangible consequences are ever-present for tenants, too. Many spoke about the fear or stress of losing their homes.

Xiomara Fugon, a tenant who recently experienced an eviction, spoke about her struggles with housing instability. Eviction and housing instability have been shown to have wide-ranging and long-lasting effects on children and families. Her oldest children are working to help her pay her rent, she said, because it went from $1,800 to $2,400 a month.

“I’m here asking the people in power that rather than speaking to us with beautiful words and empty promises that you actually listen to us and the things that we are asking,” Fugon said, speaking through a translator.

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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 including 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.