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State Rental Assistance Program Gives Out Nearly $37 Million, Despite Some Outreach Challenges

UniteCT volunteer Ariel Morales (standing) and intake and eviction specialist Carmen Ramos help Maribel Nieves (right) with rent relief at the UniteCT technology van at one of the bus' stops in Bridgeport.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public Radio
UniteCT volunteer Ariel Morales (standing) and intake and eviction specialist Carmen Ramos help Maribel Nieves (right) with rent relief at the UniteCT technology van during a stop in Bridgeport.

The state’s rental assistance program has approved nearly 5,000 cases as it celebrates a little over four months since its launch, and state housing officials say that number is a good sign that the program is finally getting help to those who need it.

UniteCT was launched in March after the state received over $400 million from the federal government to stem the tide of evictions and, ultimately, homelessness. It offers up to $15,000 for unpaid rent and $1,500 for electricity bills. Eligible applicants are tenants who make 80% or less of the HUD median income requirements.

“UniteCT is our rental relief program so we can help tenants and landlords to make sure they get some assistance. Maybe people got sick, they lost their jobs or they lost somebody in their family and they weren’t able to meet their obligations,” said Seila Mosquera-Bruno, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Housing, at an event in Bristol last week. She was joined by UniteCT staff, U.S. Rep. John Larson and Bristol Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu to tout the progress of the program and other pandemic-related relief efforts.

Mosquera-Bruno said the program is getting a significant amount of money out the door daily. And it’s all thanks to the efforts of more than 200 staff members with UniteCT and the program’s partnerships with several housing counseling agencies across the state.

“When have you seen a program managed by the state that every day we’re getting out almost $2 million?” Mosquera-Bruno added.

But while the program has made progress, it hasn’t come without a few obstacles and criticism from housing advocates and landlords alike. The program requires participation from the landlord and the tenant, and both sides say this presents an extra hurdle to getting money out. If one side is unresponsive, the application can take more time to get approval or completely fall through. According to recent data, nearly 8,000 cases have one party that hasn’t accepted the invitation to participate.

The program also has drawn criticism for being completely online. Housing advocates have argued it makes the process intimidating and harder overall for applicants who don’t have access to technology or aren’t familiar with it.

As a response, UniteCT has hired more staff to address the backlog, changed requirements and even launched a mobile tech bus to get the word out to communities with low access to technology. The bus is on the road more than four days a week and frequents over 80 locations across the state.

Larson applauded the program’s progress so far.

“They are so dedicated,” he said. “The time that they have turned all of this around has been remarkable.”

UniteCT may have had some trouble getting the message out at first, but the program isn’t the only one experiencing growing pains, Larson added. Over 400 temporary rental relief programs have seen similar issues across the country, and while the federal funds have been “transformational,” many are still unaware of it.

“Everything happens here locally and at the state [level], and this is a prime example here today like UniteCT is doing. Efforts like these to get the message out are able to make sure people are able to get assistance,” Larson said.

The program has distributed almost $37 million, according to recent data from UniteCT’s dashboard. That represents less than 10% of the total funds allocated. About 23,000 cases are in progress.

Camila Vallejo is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. She is a bilingual reporter based out of Fairfield County and welcomes all story ideas at cvallejo@ctpublic.org.

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