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News

As eviction filings in Hartford have doubled, advocates blame the end of rental assistance

Columbus, Ohio Bailiff Carries Out Eviction As Americans Struggle In Pandemic Economy
Stephen Zenner
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Getty Images
An eviction notice is posted and the lock is changed on a residence in Columbus, Ohio, on March 3, 2021.

With most pandemic-related protections for renters expiring, eviction filings are spiking again in Connecticut and beyond.

Hartford more than doubled its eviction filings compared to its pre-pandemic average between mid-March and early April. Bridgeport followed closely behind. That’s according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, which tracks eviction filings across 28 cities nationwide. Data shows that seven of those cities have surpassed pre-pandemic averages during that time frame.

“It’s a tremendously challenging time for low-income renters,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Yentel and other housing advocates blame the end of Connecticut’s rental assistance program, UniteCT.

The coalition has been tracking over 500 emergency rental assistance programs, including Connecticut’s.

UniteCT was one of hundreds of programs launched nationwide after Congress provided more than $46.5 billion to help renters stay in their homes amid the pandemic. So far the program has doled out more than $250 million for rental assistance since it launched in March 2021. It’s still in the process of paying out an additional $150 million. And to date, it’s helped more than 35,000 Connecticut households, according to the program’s website.

But in February, the program stopped taking applications.

UniteCT is one of over 100 programs that are either closed or on hold due to lack of funds, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The outcome is that renters are left with few places to turn.

“That money has kept people who otherwise would have lost their homes during the pandemic stably housed. But now those resources are depleted, and we’re seeing more renters again struggling to make ends meet and keep a roof over their heads,” Yentel said.

Nancy Hronek, a housing lawyer with Greater Hartford Legal Aid, is seeing the eviction crisis on the ground. She returned to housing court in person Monday for the first time since the pandemic started.

“I was shocked to see a line snaking out the door of the clerk’s office with people looking for eviction help,” she said. “I’ve never seen it that long. And I've been doing this for over 35 years.”

Hronek said that line just confirmed what she already knew was true: Evictions are back on the table, and without protections, many tenants are being affected – especially in Connecticut’s cities.

For more than three decades, Hronek has helped tenants with housing issues in Greater Hartford. The housing crisis isn’t new, she said, but the demand is what’s unique about what’s happening right now.

“There’s always been a huge need for lawyers to represent tenants being evicted. And we’re always at capacity – even before the pandemic,” Hronek said. “But now there is just a huge need. We have people walking in, and you don’t want to say no to folks. But it’s difficult.”

Greater Hartford Legal Aid is hiring more lawyers, she said. The firm is also part of the state’s new Right to Counsel program. Launched earlier this year, the program gives free legal aid to low-income tenants in 15 ZIP codes across the state. The program, slated to be funded for only two years, is just kicking off and already had to pause in certain locations due to overcapacity.

While the program is promising, Hronek said stemming the tide of evictions can’t just fall on legal help.

“Additional rental assistance is crucial. And we need that like yesterday,” Hronek said. “But overall, we need more affordable housing.”

The National Low Income Housing Coalition finds that Connecticut is short almost 90,000 units for extremely low-income renters. And more than half of low-income renters pay more than 30% of their income on rent. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recommends that households should pay no more than 30% on housing to live comfortably.

“In Connecticut, for every 10 of the lowest-income renter households, there are about four apartments that are affordable and available to them,” Yentel said. “Nationally, we have a shortage of 7 million homes affordable and available to low-income people.”

Yentel said it’s no secret that the federal government needs to step in to help solve the crisis by building more housing stock. But in the meantime, state and local governments should help renters any way they can.

“States and cities should use available resources to extend emergency rental assistance programs to create a bridge until long-term solutions exist,” Yentel said.

Some lawmakers have called on the state to funnel an additional $250 million into UniteCT. This comes as several bills pushing for more renter protections move through the legislature.