Through her search for a new apartment, one question on rental applications seemed to jump off the page at Debbi Halsted: Have you been evicted?

The answer was no — at least not yet.

But over the past few weeks, she had been worried her answer would change if she couldn’t pay her rent. Her Clinton landlord wanted to raise the payment from $650 a month to $1,250, more than a 90% increase. Halsted is on a fixed income and knew she couldn’t afford that rent. Even if she opted not to pay any other bill, her monthly income is just $1,119, which would leave her $131 short.

“There’s nothing right now that I see that I can afford. So what do you do?,” she said.

She brought the landlord’s rent increase to the Clinton Fair Rent Commission.

The landlord argued he’d spent $20,000 on improvements to the property and anticipated spending thousands each year. He also presented pricing on comparable apartments as evidence in his case, according to meeting minutes.

But the commission ruled in June that the rent could only go up to $700 until October when it will increase to $750.

In the motion proposing the new rent, a commissioner said he found the landlord’s proposed increase “to be harsh and unconscionable.”

Although she’s still paying more than the recommended third of her income to housing costs, Halsted counts herself one of the lucky ones.

Across the state, many Connecticut renters find themselves unable to keep up with rising rents. Many are senior citizens and families with children. Those facing housing instability and rent cost burdens are also disproportionately likely to be people with low incomes and people of color.

It’s a growing problem highlighted during the legislative session in the debate over rent caps. While legislation that would have introduced limits on annual rent increases didn’t make it out of the committee process, the issue drew some of the largest crowds and longest public hearings before the Housing Committee during the legislative session.

Testimony in one of the public hearings began in the afternoon and stretched through the night, ending at about 5 a.m. Tenants spoke of difficulty paying their rent and poor housing conditions, while landlords said the limits would make it harder for them to run their businesses and continue providing housing.

Renters and tenant union organizers are now planning the next steps in their movement and further pushes to cap the rent. 

They’re working to formalize the Connecticut Tenants Union by introducing bylaws and electing officers. They’re also figuring out the best ways to work with mobile home owners — a separate group with a similar goal to limit rent increases for the land their homes sit on.

A rent cap was initially introduced in its own bill, then moved into the Senate Democrats’ housing priority bill. The proposal would have capped annual hikes at 4% plus inflation — higher than limits advocates originally asked for.

But after objection from some Housing Committee members, the measure was pulled from the bill. The Senate housing omnibus bill ultimately didn’t get a vote on the House or Senate floor, although certain pieces were included in other bills.

A rent cap likely has an uphill climb. While lawmakers said they’d consider any proposals that came before them, many pointed out that it’s controversial, even among Democrats.

The next legislative session is also occurring during an election year and is shorter than this year’s, meaning controversial legislation may be more difficult to pass.

“I think it was pretty clear that the political support within the legislature wasn’t there,” said Housing Committee co-chair Rep. Geoff Luxenberg, D-Manchester. “I don’t want to say never to anything. I think we always have to keep an open mind to all policy proposals that come before us, but I think there are some significant headwinds against it.”

But tenants like Halsted want to see lawmakers tackle the issue to ensure housing is more affordable. She said she wanted to bring awareness to the problem, even though the local rent commission ruled in her favor.

Halsted started applying for housing subsidies three years ago, but was told the lists were up to eight years long. Her landlord, who could not be reached for comment, may appeal the commission’s decision in the coming weeks.

“I didn’t realize what a shortage there is in the state of Connecticut for affordable senior housing,” Halsted said. “This is a real problem.

“It’s like how much noise do I make? … I feel like no one is listening.”

Tenant unions

Members of the Connecticut Tenants Union, a group that helps tenants form their own unions, knocked on doors and organized renters during the session in hopes that tenants would be heard. They’re figuring out next steps and spending the summer formalizing the group with bylaws and new officers.

These efforts will offer more unity to a group that started with just a couple of individual tenant unions and is growing quickly. It’ll also mean they can hire organizers and possibly a lobbyist down the road, said Luke Melonakos-Harrison, an organizer.

They’re offering training to new unions on how to negotiate with landlords in lieu of the statewide protection they wanted to see.

“If we can’t even get our state legislators to put a legal cap on rent increases, to just stabilize things from what people are facing right now, if we can’t win that, then we’re forced to use the tools at our disposal, which is withholding our rent,” Melonakos-Harrison said.

At least one tenant union in the eastern part of the state is on rent strike now, protesting poor living conditions.

It’s inspired by the labor union movement, Melonakos-Harrison said. But rather than withholding labor, unions are preparing to withhold rent in some cases in which landlords won’t work with them.

It helps tenants in cities such as New Haven when the local government recognizes the union.

On Tuesday, the city gave official recognition to a second tenant union. Two members filed the paperwork in city hall and held a press conference with city officials.

New Haven allows tenant unions to file fair rent complaints as a group. The 1476 Chapel Street Tenants Union has complained of poor living conditions and new rent increases at a property managed by a company called Ocean Management.

Union members and allies recently held a rally in front of the company’s office building in New Haven to demand changes.

Annie Hardy, one of the tenant union leaders, said she’d been negotiating with the landlord on rent for the three-bedroom apartment she shares with her daughter. When she moved in, the rent was $1,395 a month. Her landlord wanted to raise it to $1,535.

She negotiated it down to $1,475, but that still encompasses one of her two monthly paychecks. “I’m left with scraps,” she said.

The windows in the common spaces are nailed shut and some of the wiring could pose a fire hazard, said Amanda Watts, another one of the tenants.

“Our main goal is for us to have better conditions and for Ocean to take notice of us and fix the things that they’ve caused and fix the building that they caused to fall into disrepair,” they said.

Ocean did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Recognition of the union by the city marks a win for the larger and growing movement. The group is also looking at the best ways to work in future sessions with mobile home owners, who face similar struggles trying to keep up with the rising costs of housing.

Mobile homes

This session’s rent cap bill also would have extended limits on rent increases to mobile and manufactured home owners. Typically, they own the building itself, but rent the land it sits on. It is difficult and expensive to move the homes once they are placed.

Manufactured and mobile homes are similar, but mobile homes are defined as those built before June 15, 1976, according to the federal government. The term manufactured homes was used after that date as more stringent regulations were put in place for these.

Many residents have seen rising land rents since the COVID-19 pandemic, and for senior citizens on a fixed income, that can pose challenges.

More than a dozen residents at a manufactured home park in Terryville gathered one June evening to discuss their concerns. They talked about the conditions of the roads at the parks, the loss of services such as tree maintenance and the frustrating switch to digital newsletters instead of paper copies since new ownership took over a couple of years ago.

But rent stood out as their primary problem.

Many said they’d moved into manufactured homes to cut down on costs before they retired or because they knew the houses would only be one floor and would be easily accessible.

“It’s not affordable housing anymore for us,” said Carol Sembersky, a Terryville resident. She and her neighbors’ land rents have gone up annually for the past several years.

Her rent rose by $12 a month, then $24, and most recently by $39. She pays $578 a month, and on a fixed income, every increase can threaten a senior citizens’ ability to pay other bills, she said in an interview.

She can’t find an apartment at that price and wants to stay in her home.

The resale value of the homes also drops as land rent prices go up because people are less likely to want to buy a home where expenses are high, said Dave Delohery, president of the Connecticut Manufactured Homeowners’ Alliance.

That means many of these home owners are stuck in their homes, even as they grow less affordable.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal speaks to residents about a bill that would introduce new federal protections for mobile home owners at a gathering in Southington on Wednesday, June 28. Ginny Monk / CT Mirror

Mobile home owners met last week with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal in Southington. Blumenthal signed on to support a federal mobile home owners bill of rights that would offer the right of first refusal to home owners if their parks are sold and require set notice periods for rent increases, among other protections.

During the session, Connecticut passed a bill that requires the right of first refusal for mobile and manufactured home owners for parks being sold in the state. Gov. Ned Lamont signed it into law last month.

But, participants at the Southington meeting said, they’re worried about the rent, and the federal bill doesn’t protect them from rent increases.

What lawmakers say

Even with mobile home owners and tenants working together, it’s not clear what chance another rent cap bill has at passing. Lawmakers examined other ways to improve housing affordability, including by offering funding in the state’s bonding package to build more housing and improve existing rental housing.

With more supply, economists reason, prices will drop.

Housing experts have also said that local zoning restrictions make it difficult to build enough multifamily housing to meet the need in Connecticut.

Housing Committee co-chair Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, said she knew that the rent cap bill was one of the disappointments for advocates this session. She wants to focus on expanding renters’ rights again next session.

“I expect there to be pushback no matter what we do in the way of housing,” Moore said.

She also pointed to the inclusion of money for retrofitting apartments in environmental justice communities as one of the session wins for tenants. She hopes people will understand the ways other issues, such as climate change concerns and segregation, intersect in housing.

“We have to think about how climate change is impacting when we need heat [in a home] and the weather,” Moore said. “Because I think it’s all going to shift.”

Republicans said that they don’t think the idea of a rent cap is good for the economy and fear it could make things harder for landlords. They also said they don’t think there’s enough political will to push the issue forward.

“It’s just simply not workable, because who is  going to invest in the state of Connecticut, to build more housing or make housing available when there is going to be a limit to the amount of money they’re going to make?,” said Housing Committee ranking member Rep. Tony Scott, R-Monroe.

During the session, Housing Committee ranking member Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, objected to the idea of the government interfering in the free market with rent caps.

“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.

Scott said he thought the hearings on rent caps wasted time that could have been spent on other issues such as making the housing choice voucher system easier to use or focusing on issues impacting people experiencing homelessness.

He added that he thinks that a rent cap might lead to landlords raising rent to the maximum allowable amount every year, leading to annual rent increases.

“I think the renters could actually get screwed in terms of not being able to have a flat year potentially. I think that would be something that’s not going to happen as much,” he said. “I think the investment is just going to dry up. And that’s the exact opposite of what we’re trying to have happen.”

Ginny is CT Mirror's children's issues and housing reporter and a Report for America corps member. She covers a variety of topics ranging from 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.