COVID-19 Is Still Here But Connecticut’s Sympathy for Hardest Hit Renters Has Run Out
The governor has rolled back eviction protections for those struggling most to pay rent.
When Governor Ned Lamont extended Connecticut’s eviction moratorium in September, he added a new catch: Landlords are allowed to begin eviction proceedings in the case of “serious nonpayment” of rent, or against tenants who owe six months or more.
Each time the governor has extended the moratorium, he has included a new exemption that loosened restrictions for landlords to bring cases against tenants. But the Sept. 30 change is far broader and more troubling to housing advocates. It’s had “the biggest impact in expanding [landlords’] access to eviction court,” said Melissa Marichal, a staff attorney at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center.
Numbers gathered by her organization and shared with The Appeal show that eviction filings jumped from 198 in September to 308 in October and climbed to 599 in February. And although nobody was actually evicted last year from mid-March through July, 1,034 people were removed from their homes between October 2020 and mid-March of this year.
“For the first five or six months of the pandemic we were understanding and very supportive of people who were losing their jobs,” said Shelley White, litigation director at the New Haven Legal Assistance Association Inc. But then, in September, it shifted. “We just lost all sympathy for them.”
Lamont signed the eviction moratorium on April 10, permitting evictions only in the case of a tenant creating a “serious nuisance,” such as harming other residents. But when the governor extended it at the end of June, he added a new exemption for rent that was owed before Feb. 29, or before the pandemic began.
“That didn’t make any sense from the public health perspective,” said Marichal. Even if a tenant was struggling to pay rent before the pandemic, making her move in the middle of a public health crisis still risked the spread of COVID-19. Even low eviction rates have been found to spread the virus; moratoriums, on the other hand, reduce it.
Lamont again extended the moratorium toward the end of August and included yet another opening for eviction, this time for landlords who wanted to move into a unit as their primary dwelling. Marichal started seeing eviction filings from “landlords claiming that they wanted to move back into the unit, but it’s obviously very hard to disprove that intent,” she said.
Now, the latest version, Marichal said, “is going to place a burden on the tenants that are in the most financial distress.”
Marichal’s and White’s clients who face eviction under the exemption include those who’ve lost their jobs, who haven’t been able to enroll in unemployment insurance, or who’ve gone back to work but are making much less because of continuing pandemic-related restrictions.
White said she is seeing a “huge” number of cases where tenants aren’t showing up for their court dates, possibly because they believe they’re protected from eviction during the pandemic. Others may not know they can be protected, or may owe so much in back rent that they feel like there’s no chance they could ever pay it back.
Marichal has also seen cases where the tenant didn’t owe as much as six months of rent, but the landlord filed an eviction anyway. Many renters may have difficulty proving how much they’ve paid. “It definitely seems like it creates a perverse incentive a bit to claim that a tenant is more behind than they are,” she said.
That’s what happened to Courtney. She had just started a new business in Connecticut when the pandemic began and she had to shutter it. The lack of income made paying rent on her home difficult, but for many months, she was protected by the state moratorium.
Courtney was only three months behind on rent and had told her property manager she’d applied to a state rental assistance program. But once the serious nonpayment exemption was enacted in September, her property manager handed her an eviction notice anyway. (The Appeal is using a pseudonym for Courtney because she is still in court trying to get the eviction proceedings expunged.) “They still went forward with the eviction,” she said. “I just felt like they don’t care.”
Even after the rental assistance program paid back everything she owed, the property owner kept the case moving forward until Courtney called so many times the owner relented and dropped it. “It was like a mental abuse,” she said of the experience. She is baffled that the property manager thought it could get away with it. “How dare you rush it just because you can? ” she said. “How could you be so heartless, especially in a time like this?”
Those facing eviction in the state are also disproportionately people of color. Using data from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, Marichal’s organization found that tenants in over half of the eviction cases filed in Connecticut between April 10 and Dec. 31, 2020, were Black or Latinx, even though these groups make up less than a quarter of the state’s population.
Lamont’s office did not respond to a request for comment. In a press release issued when he signed the extension with the exemption for serious nonpayment of rent, he said, “Public health experts at the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] have determined that supporting renters and landlords during this public health crisis is critical to controlling the spread of COVID-19,” adding that “tenants who can pay their rent on time should do so, and landlords and tenants should work together to develop reasonable payment plans for these extraordinary circumstances.”
The governor also signed the September exemption before meaningful rental assistance could be distributed to tenants. In July, Connecticut launched a program to do so, but two months later, it had issued aid to only two families, despite receiving 30,000 applications. That was in large part due to burdensome documentation requirements and intake being paused just six weeks into the program’s existence. Lamont’s administration later promised to overhaul it, but the program closed in December with plenty of applications unapproved, Marichal said.
This month, the state launched a rental assistance program funded by $235 million from Congress’s year-end relief package, which will offer up to $10,000 per tenant who earns up to 80 percent of area median income, is at risk of homelessness, and has suffered job or income loss as a result of the pandemic.
But Marichal pointed out there will still be a wait time for applications to be processed. She argues the state should pause all evictions, perhaps except for serious risk of harm, until renters get a chance to get some relief. White added: “Why are we evicting people, why are we putting people out on the streets, when there’s an opportunity to get rental assistance?”
The CDC has issued a national moratorium on evictions that’s still in place and could, in theory, protect Connecticut renters from losing their homes, even under the state’s exemption. But tenants have to know about the protection and raise the issue with their landlords and the courts. Many are unaware and assume that they have to leave and move on their own when they receive the first eviction filing.
Even if tenants do raise the CDC protections with their landlords, judges in the state have allowed landlords or their attorneys to cross-examine tenants about whether they qualify. Some judges have decided that tenants shouldn’t be shielded from eviction, allowing the cases to move forward, Marichal and White said.
As is the case in much of the country, tenants who successfully fight off an eviction still have the initial attempt on their records. This makes it harder for renters to find new housing, as landlords are less likely to rent to someone with an eviction in their history. Under Connecticut’s latest exemption, a tenant’s unpaid and owed rent must be included in court filings, too. “It’s right there for any prospective, new landlord to see,” White said, whether the amount the landlord claims a tenant owes is accurate or not. “It’s almost a kiss of death for tenants being able to move.”
The clients that Marichal and White are assisting are the lucky ones, able to secure legal counsel in their eviction cases. Seven percent of Connecticut tenants have legal representation in these cases, compared to 81 percent of landlords. That could change if the legislature were to pass a bill creating a right to counsel in eviction proceedings, which would make Connecticut the first state in the country to guarantee such a right. Housing advocates are also pushing the legislature to pass a bill that would require all eviction records to be sealed, giving tenants a better chance of securing housing in the future.
The latter would help Courtney because the eviction attempt remains on her record. “That should never have happened,” she said. But, she added, “it’s easy to break something, but it’s hard to fix.”