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Rent paid, still evicted: Help may be ahead for those facing no-fault evictions

Belongings left behind by evicted residents in Hartford last year.
Jacqueline Rabe Thomas
Belongings left behind by evicted residents in Hartford last year.

This is the second article in a two-part series: "Rent Paid, Still Evicted."Wednesday, we explored the uptick in no-fault evictions and the impact on renters. Today, we explore solutions. On Friday at 9 a.m. listen to CT Public's Where We Liveas we dive into this topic further.

Unable to find a place to rent, Margaret — who has never missed a rent payment — fears homelessness is in the near future for her and her three children.

The frontline hospital worker is one of the hundreds of renters in Connecticut currently facing what's known as a no-fault eviction.

“I have nowhere to go. I think about that all the time. ‘Where would I go? What would I do? Where would my children go?'" Margaret said.

She’s asked CT Public to use a different name because she fears retaliation from her landlord, who filed the no-fault eviction against her on the basis that her lease had expired. She said the eviction came after she complained about a broken refrigerator and flooded basement.

While many evictions are filed for missed rent or being a nuisance, no-fault evictions are typically on the basis that the lease has expired or the landlord wants the unit back to live in. During the pandemic, many more households faced these type of evictions as no-fault complaints creeped up to 50% of all eviction court filings.

Margaret spends hours every week looking for somewhere to move. But between an unwelcoming market, landlords unwilling to accept her Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher and housing authorities slow to process her paperwork when she does find a place, she hasn't had any luck securing new housing.

Meanwhile as her next court date nears, the fear of becoming homeless lives rent free in her mind.

"I’m kind of like waiting for that day to come hoping it doesn’t..." She said.

Help may be on the way for her and the growing number of people facing evictions every week, and countless others struggling to find affordable housing.

At the state Capitol, legislators are considering a list of bills that collectively would ban no-fault evictions in large apartment buildings, shield from the public eviction records that are ultimately withdrawn or dismissed, allow landlords to accept damage insurance instead of a security deposit, and set up Fair Rent Commissions across the state to determine if rent increases are justified.

"We're gonna make sure that there are protections," said state Rep. Quentin "Q" Williams, D-Middletown, the co-chairman of the legislature's Housing Committee. "We have common sense practices that are going to keep folks in their home, keep folks safe, get our economy back going."

Outside the Capitol, a new program that promises to provide attorneys to all low-income residents facing eviction in certain zip codes is slowly rolling out.

A lawyer for court days, keeps the eviction away?

The day Margaret has been fearing — of a judge ordering her to leave and having no where to go — may not come as quickly as she initially expected.

That's because she was recently connected with a free attorney who is able to challenge if that no-cause eviction filing is an illegal retaliation for complaining about her housing conditions. Her attorney has already asked the court to dismiss the case because he believes the landlord didn't provide proper notice of the eviction.

"My lawyer is buying me more time. I know I still need to leave. I am trying," she said while taking a break from her daily routine of calling landlords.

Her story of being connected with a free attorney, however, is not the norm.

A new program state lawmakers created with $20 million of the federal pandemic aid the state received aims to change that by providing every low-income tenant facing eviction an attorney in 15 high-poverty zip codes. Only 6% of those facing eviction in those zip codes in the two years before the pandemic hit had an attorney, data show.

Research for Right to Counsel efforts in Philadelphia, and Massachusetts have all estimated cost savings when attorneys are provided because it will lead to a decline in the need for homelessness services and court proceedings.

But Connecticut's program launched just as evictions began to soar — and the Right to Counsel program is struggling to help the influx of low-income tenants facing eviction. Last week officials announced they had to pause accepting new clients in certain zip codes while they worked to catch up and hire more attorneys.

In the 15 zip codes where the Right to Counsel has opened, eviction filings doubled from 355 in February to 725 in March. Before the pandemic, evictions filings hovered around 400 in those months.

"The need is more than we can really handle at the moment," said Elizabeth Rosenthal, the deputy director at New Haven Legal Assistance Association who works on housing cases. "The need is really overwhelming. The tsunami of evictions that we were fearing the entire time during the pandemic, I think is here. It's scary and heartbreaking."

"The need is more than we can really handle at the moment. The need is really overwhelming. The tsunami of evictions that we were fearing the entire time during the pandemic, I think is here. It's scary and heartbreaking."
Elizabeth Rosenthal, deputy director at New Haven Legal Assistance Association

To ensure everyone has an attorney in the selected zip codes in New Haven, her office needs 13 full time attorneys. There are currently 6 and she is working to hire more.

So far the Right to Counsel Program has 22 full-time attorneys and have hired 5 more who will begin in the coming months. The legislature provided enough funding for the program to employ 40 attorneys.

To provide an attorney in every zip code in Connecticut, the Connecticut Bar Foundation estimates it would take about 100 full-time attorneys.

"Ultimately, what we hope for is that we're increasing housing stability for the lower-income population," said Natalie Wagner, executive director of the foundation.

"Right to Counsel is one effort to address ongoing imbalances in the civil legal system — but overall for housing security to be addressed and for residents to have stable housing, we need comprehensive solutions," said Tiffany Walton, the director of grant programs at the foundation. "Right to council is one strategy, but there needs to be other solutions."

Ban no-fault evictions and seal those records?

Margaret says, ideally, she’d like a spacious single-family home in a good school district for her and her children.

But when landlords look her up, they see an eviction is pending.

"I am being turned down left and right," she said.

Facing a no-fault eviction after complaining about her housing conditions, Margaret reviews places available to rent on her phone. The tough housing market and the pending eviction filing on her record is making it difficult.
Camila Valejo
CT Public
Facing a no-fault eviction after complaining about her housing conditions, Margaret reviews places available to rent on her phone. The tough housing market and the pending eviction filing on her record is making it difficult.

Connecticut lawmakers are considering two bills that aim to prevent this from happening to others going forward.

One would ban no-fault evictions in apartment buildings with five or more units. Such evictions are already forbidden for the elderly and in public housing. If approved, Connecticut would be among the first states to provide such protections against no-fault evictions.

"To be evicted, there should be just cause," said Rep. Williams.

The second bill would require the Judicial Branch to remove eviction records from its website within 30 days of the case being withdrawn or dismissed and for cases that are ruled on within one year.

Currently, cases that are withdrawn or dismissed live online for 11 to 12 months and cases that are ruled on for 3 years. The bill also would limit what tenant-screening companies that pay the branch to purchase eviction data can disclose to landlords about prospective tenants.

If approved, Connecticut would join 8 other state that provide similar protections, including in a couple conservative-leaning states.

In Connecticut, these two bills have received considerable pushback from landlords.

Bob DeCosmo, president of the Connecticut Property Owners Alliance and the tenant-screening company TenantTracks, said evicting someone because their lease is up is much easier than having to prove the real reason in court.

"No Fault evictions or the lapse of time evictions an essential tool you have if a tenant is being disruptive in a property," he said.

Reducing the time to one year disclosure of those who are actually evicted will have a huge unintended consequence, he said.

"It basically gives every tenant in Connecticut an opportunity to live rent free every other year. Concealing true eviction histories, the consequences are landlords are going to raise rents, because they are going to perceive risk. Other things have popped up like creating — we call them Aardvark lists — where landlords get together and create these secret lists. And basically it's a blacklist and tenants don't have any recourse to their names off of those types of lists."

He doesn't have a problem with state law changing to restrict tenant screening companies like the one he manages out of Waterbury from disclosing withdrawn and dismissed cases. His company doesn't use that data, anyway.

"Using that, it would be prejudicial to the show that eviction," he said.

It's unclear whether these bills have enough support and will be voted on before the legislature adjourns in three weeks. Past efforts have failed to cross the finish line.

If the legislature doesn't approve the changes, housing advocates plan to continue pressing the Judicial Branch to change their rules on how long they keep these records online and the user agreement they have tenant screening companies sign to include restrictions on how the data can be used.

While this debate continues, a familiar signal that evictions have resumed is showing up.

"We are starting to see people's furniture on the curbside," said Rep. Geraldo Reyes, who represents Waterbury and is chairman of the legislature's Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. "I have seen piles of furniture. There's a problem."

Reyes represents zip code 06710 in Waterbury, where one out of every 22 renters faced eviction in 2019. That's the highest eviction rate among all the zip codes in the state, according to an analysis completed by the Connecticut Bar Foundation.

These filings also disproportionately impact vulnerable communities. An analysis by CT Fair Housing and CT Data Collaborative found Black and Hispanic women in Connecticut are at higher risk of eviction than any other group.

Margaret hopes not to be the next Black mother putting her stuff on the curb.

"I try not to stress," she said. "I'm just going to wait until that day comes and deal with it then, because if I stress in the meantime, I can't do that to myself."

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas was an investigative reporter with Connecticut Public’s Accountability Project from July 2021 until August 2022.
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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