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Housing issues affect everyone in Connecticut, from those who are searching for a safe place to live, to those who may find it increasingly difficult to afford a place they already call home.WNPR is covering Connecticut's housing and homelessness issues in a series that examines how residents are handling the challenges they face. We look at the trends that matter most right now, and tell stories that help bring the issues to light.

With Eviction Moratorium Ending Soon, Rental Assistance Effort Hits The Road

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Joe Amon
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Connecticut Public
UniteCT volunteer Ariel Morales (standing) and intake and eviction specialist Carmen Ramos help Maribel Nieves (right) of Bridgeport with rent relief at the UniteCT technology van at New Hope Baptist Church.

Prior to the pandemic, Bridgeport resident Maribel Nieves worked 28 hours a week as a home health aide. However, her hours were quickly cut when COVID-19 began to rage through the state. 

“Being a home health aide for 21 years, patients were scared for aides to go out to their homes. My hours got cut and my rent and bills started going up, so I’m backed up over a year or so in rent,” Nieves said. 

She’s not alone. The pandemic has hit American households in a multitude of ways. And low-income Americans, in particular, have found themselves short on cash, with nearly half of adults reporting trouble paying their bills. With temporary national and local eviction moratoriums set to expire June 30, people are seeking aid more than ever. 

 

Nieves is seeking emergency rent relief through the state’s federally funded program, UniteCT. She initially found out about the program through her daughter and applied in April with the help of a mobile resource bus. 

 

“I’m grateful for this program,” Nieves said. 

 

The bus, unveiled in April, travels to help communities with limited access to technology apply for rental and electricity payment relief. It stopped by New Hope Baptist Church in Bridgeport on June 11 as it made its weekly rounds across Connecticut. 

 

Carmen Ramos
Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
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Connecticut Public
Intake and eviction specialist Carmen Ramos helps visitors at the UniteCT technology van at New Hope Baptist Church. UniteCT, the state's emergency relief rental assistance program, was launched March 15 and has helped over 1,000 residents in need.

It’s hard to miss. Some 38 feet long, the UniteCT bus sports a vibrant blue and orange logo along with a list of application requirements in both English and Spanish. The bus is equipped with 10 computer stations, five iPads and three representatives available to help new and existing applicants. 

The completely online program, funded by Connecticut’s share of the $47 billion Congress cleared for rental and utility relief, provides up to $15,000 toward rental assistance and up to $1,500 for utilities per household. To qualify, tenants must earn 80% or less of the area median income and have experienced financial hardships during the pandemic. 

A successful process from application to funds distribution can take 10 to 14 days, said UniteCT Program Manager Marina Marmolejo. But that’s only if tenants and landlords have all required documentation.

Nieves’ application is one of 1,389 currently pending in Fairfield County, according to the UniteCT dashboard on June 15th. Hers has taken more than a month due to missing information. 

 

This isn’t uncommon, said Ariel Morales, the only bilingual representative on the bus. However, the most common scenario is landlords unwilling to participate. Currently out of almost 18,000 cases, 4,206 do not have landlord participation. As a result, Morales said she often has to pick up the phone and encourage them to get on board.

 

“I’ve told them the terms: Do you want your money back? Because this is what our program is for. You just have to do your portion and submit it,” said Morales. 

Landlords are needed to prove rent relief needs, property ownership and more. 

Nieves said her landlord has been flexible, but if her application is denied, she fears for the near future. 

Maribel Nieves
Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
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Connecticut Public
Maribel Nieves of Bridgeport visits the UniteCT technology van at New Hope Baptist Church on June 11. Nieves is currently in the process of applying for emergency rental relief through Unite CT.

“Right now, they're not evicting tenants yet -- some people have, but I don't know their cases. I wouldn’t know what to do. I have kids but they have families and they have their own bills,” Nieves said. “I wouldn’t want to vacate the apartment if I don’t have to, but landlords do have to get paid because they have to pay the mortgage.” 

 

During its Bridgeport stop, the bus was joined by Building Neighborhoods Together and Alliance for Community Empowerment, which offers assistance on gas bills. 

 

“The social potential for this bus is great. Anyone who wants to set up shop in the community can, because someone who needs rental assistance could be in need of a variety of other resources,” said Marmolejo. 

 

While the bus was initially sent on the road to help bridge any digital and language divides, each stop has turned into a community resource event. UniteCT hopes to partner with local farmers markets, churches and more as the program continues.  

 

According to the governor’s office, UniteCT has helped more than 1,000 households since its official launch in March. It is unknown how many of those households were reached with the help of the bus. However, some housing advocates say it’s not enough to meet the demand. There are estimates that at least 75,000 households in Connecticut will need rental assistance once the halt on evictions is lifted. 

 

This story has been updated.

 

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