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Some residents facing eviction could now be eligible for free legal aid

An eviction notice is posted and the lock is changed on a residence in Columbus, Ohio on March 3, 2021.
Stephen Zenner
Getty Images
An eviction notice is posted and the lock is changed on a residence in Columbus, Ohio on March 3, 2021.

Reynaer Bamberg says she had one of the hardest conversations of her life about a year ago. She had to tell her 10-year-old daughter that they were facing eviction.

“I sat her down, I let her know, you know, we are probably going to have to leave this house,” Bamberg said. “She’s like, ‘I don’t want to leave. I love my room. I love my house …’ So when she said that to me, that really solidified that I can’t lose this apartment. Not like this.”

The New Haven-area resident was a teller at a local bank until the location closed at the beginning of 2020. She was without a job when the pandemic hit. and eventually she was hospitalized with COVID-19. Then she fell behind on rent, owing her landlord nearly $9,000. She said she tried to come to a compromise with the landlord, but in the end she faced two court cases: eviction and a small claims matter.

“I was lost. I felt like I failed as a parent. Like, how can I put me and my daughter in this situation? It’s the worst feeling,” Bamberg said, thinking back to how she felt in that moment, unsure of how to proceed, especially without a lawyer.

Bamberg’s experience wasn’t unique. Connecticut’s eviction or summary process takes five steps. which could all happen in as little as 26 days. If tenants don’t take certain steps or don’t know when to appear in court, their case could default and they could lose their home. In fact, 37% of Connecticut tenants fail to appear in court during eviction proceedings, and their cases end in default, according to a 2021 report by the Connecticut Advisory Council on Housing Matters.

But that could soon change. Last summer, Gov. Ned Lamont signed into law a new statewide program that will give low-income tenants facing eviction access to a lawyer. Connecticut became the third state in the country to endorse a right to counsel program and the second to fund it after Washington. The first phase is set to roll out Jan. 31 for select income-eligible residents in 14 neighborhoods.

Lawyers for the program say it aims to address an uneven playing field. In Connecticut, 80% of landlords have legal representation in eviction cases, whileonly 7% of tenants have the same benefit. And without representation, many tenants are unaware of their rights.

“Having a right is very different from being able to exercise the right,” said Natalie Wagner, a Connecticut-based lawyer and the executive director of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, which is administering the Right to Counsel Program. “And being able to understand that process for somebody who’s in crisis can be nearly impossible, without somebody there who understands the process to be able to explain it to and walk you through it.”

Why does it matter? 

Wagner said the need for counsel was recognized in criminal cases a long time ago because of the devastating effects a record can have on an individual. An eviction record works in similar ways. And that’s why this program goes beyond just what happens before a judge.

“If you have an eviction judgment against you, it makes it more difficult for you to access other stable housing,” she said. “If you have housing instability, it makes it more difficult for you to regularly access employment, access to health care, children's access, you know, maintaining access to schooling.”

A similar program was launched in New York City in 2017. So far, it has decreased evictions by over 40% since 2013, and 86% of households that have been represented have been able to stay in their homes, according to the program’s most recent annual report.

During the pandemic, many of Connecticut’s eviction cases were halted thanks to moratoriums and executive orders. The goal was to keep as many people housed and out of shelters as the state worked to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“What the pandemic put into high relief is the connection between health and housing,” said Elizabeth Rosenthal, deputy director of New Haven Legal Assistance Association, one of five legal aid programs in Connecticut that will be part of Right to Counsel.

Since last July, evictions have been kept at bay, in part, thanks to Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order 12D. That order put several safeguards in place, including encouraging landlords to take advantage of federal rent relief and giving tenants a 30-day stay after they receive notice to quit. Before the pandemic, they had three days.

But Lamont’s emergency powers are set to end in February, and his executive order could expire, too.

“[Executive order] 12D has been imperative for giving everyone enough time. Without it in place, it’s going to be – I know it’s been overused – but a tsunami of evictions,” Rosenthal said.

‘Better settlements’
Before the pandemic, an average of 20,000 residents faced eviction in Connecticut each year. And four cities in Connecticut were in the top 100 in the nation for most evictions in 2016. The numbers are expected to be higher as pandemic safeguards are lifted.

That’s where the Right to Counsel hopes to step in and help some low-income tenants and landlords get more favorable outcomes, just as in Reynaer Bamberg’s case.

Thanks to the court’s clerk Bamberg found out about legal aid services. She called the statewide hotline and, within 10 days of getting her notice to quit, she had legal representation. Due to staffing and lack of funds, legal aid services prior to this program could take only a certain number of eviction cases a year. Bamberg said she was one of the lucky ones.

“Having counsel saved me,” she said. “It was just like they were working around the clock to make sure that me and my daughter would not be homeless.”

Her legal aid lawyer walked her through the mediation process, helped her access rent relief and negotiated with Bamberg’s landlord to let her and her daughter stay in their apartment.

“One month after I got rent relief, I found a new job and I’m still in my home,” Bamberg said. “I think it’s great that more residents will be able to better their situation like I did.”

While the law passed with overwhelming support, some landlords voiced their opposition during the public hearing portion, stating the system was fine as it was.

“The summary process in [Connecticut] operates with [the] help of housing mediators that craft agreements between landlord and tenant …Delaying the process is the likely outcome when more lawyers are involved,” wrote John Souza, president of the Connecticut Coalition of Property Owners.

And a delay in the process is a possibility, according to a randomized study on the outcomes of having counsel in New York City. But representation on both sides ended in fewer court appearances or motions.

“The outcomes that are created by having attorneys on both sides do promote better settlements, they’re more realistic settlements. Our system of justice is designed around two parties on equal footing going in front of a judge to determine what is justice,” said Cecil Thomas, an attorney with Greater Hartford Legal Aid Services, another organization involved with the program.

Getting it up and running

The state allocated $20 million to the program for its first two years. Funding comes from the state’s share of pandemic-related federal dollars. An additional $2.4 million is available from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“It looks like we’ll probably have 25 attorneys around the state providing representation under the program beginning at the end of January, and will continue to onboard and train attorneys,” said Wagner of the Connecticut Bar Foundation.

It’s estimated each attorney will take on a caseload of 100 a year, helping more than 2,000 households in its first phase.

The program will prioritize areas in need in its first phase. Eligible tenants are those who make 80% or less than the area median income and live in certain ZIP codes in Hartford, Danielson, Willimantic, Putnam, New Haven, West Haven, Bridgeport or Waterbury. Those ZIP codes represent where historically 25% of evictions are filed statewide, Wagner said.

Through the program, Connecticut Veterans Legal Center will also provide representation to tenants at risk of eviction who have served in the armed forces regardless of what ZIP code they live in.

Wagner said the goal is to expand the program with time. But for now the biggest challenge is staffing.

“It’s not really just about how much money is available. But how long does it take to get enough attorneys hired and trained in order to provide the representation,” Wagner said.

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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