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CT effort to help tenants avoid eviction is succeeding, but statewide rollout is uncertain

Eviction Protest
Tyler Russell
/
Connecticut Public
Housing advocates protest evictions in February 2021. The tenant right to counsel program is running in 15 ZIP codes, including Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport and Stamford, the same ZIP codes with Connecticut’s highest eviction rates.

Connecticut's right to counsel program has already helped hundreds of people across parts of the state avoid eviction.

For Alicia Arnold, it was a blessing that came when she needed it the most.

For nine years, the New Haven tenant worked with her landlord to keep her unit in good shape. She said she’d get the grass cut and make repairs throughout the house, all out of her own pocket. But when her landlord wanted to sell the building, she found herself eventually facing eviction.

“Oh, my God, it hurt me. I was hurt. It just basically crushed my heart. Because, you know, I had a long history with the landlord,” Arnold said, recalling the moment she found out about the eviction.

Arnold said she wanted to leave but needed time. After witnessing a violent crime in a previous neighborhood, safety was top of mind for her when it came to the housing search, she said. And even though she looked for two years, the market had limited options that were both safe and affordable.

But she counted herself lucky when a friend referred her to the state’s right to counsel program. Launched in January, the right to counsel program provides income-eligible tenants facing evictions with free lawyers. More than 1,500 tenants have used the service so far, including Arnold.

Arnold was paired with attorney Elizabeth Rosenthal, the deputy director at the New Haven Legal Assistance Association, and reached what she considered a “good result” in an average eviction case. Rosenthal helped Arnold delay the eviction proceeding, giving Arnold more time to search for a new home. If all goes as intended and Arnold moves by the date agreed to in court, she can ask for the eviction case to be withdrawn.

Prior to the program rollout, 80% of landlords had legal representation in eviction cases, while only 7% of tenants had the same legal resources. Tenants without a lawyer were almost twice as likely to be evicted than those who were represented.

The program was designed to help level the playing field in court but also address parts of systemic inequality in housing access. From 2017 to 2021, Black renters in Connecticut were over three times more likely than white renters to have an eviction filed against them, and for Latino renters it was two times more likely than for white renters, according to a report from the CTData Collaborative.

The same report found that in general, women were more likely than men to have an eviction filed against them. That disparity increases when race is included. For instance, 62% of eviction filings for Black renters and 59% of eviction filings for Latino renters were against female tenants.

The right to counsel program further drives the point, as women of color are the most in need, according to data from the Connecticut Bar Foundation, the program’s administering entity. Since its launch, nearly 70% of tenants seeking help through right to counsel have been women. And nearly half of tenants have been Black.

“I think it’s a reflection of other things in our society,” Rosenthal said.

The tenant right to counsel program is now running in 15 ZIP codes, including cities like Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport and Stamford, the same ZIP codes with Connecticut’s highest eviction rates. Since the program’s launch, the percentage of tenants represented in court in those areas has nearly doubled, according to data from the Connecticut Bar Foundation.

More than 80% of tenants who had a lawyer by their side through the program have been able to avoid an eviction judgment.

Will the right to counsel be available statewide?

The program has been phased in to maximize resources. And while successful, the program is a long way from being available statewide.

“There are a lot of successes with the rights counsel program. And there are some frustrations, too,” said Rosenthal.

Rosenthal said the biggest obstacle is overwhelming demand. On average, 20,000 evictions are filed a year in Connecticut, and even more are expected by the end of this year.

Statewide, Connecticut has only about 35 lawyers working in the right to counsel program.

“There is a lot of demand,” said Tiffany Walton with the Connecticut Bar Foundation. “Based on the estimates at the outset of the program, Connecticut would need about 100 lawyers to meet the demand.”

But right now, funds are available for 40 lawyers, Walton said.

Like other industries, hiring is difficult at the moment. And not everyone is fit for the role.

“It’s really high-volume, it can be very intense, both the work and the emotional labor. You really have to get to know your client, you want to make sure you’re being client-centered,” Rosenthal said.

Meanwhile, other tenant advocates across the state are trying to fill the gaps.

A comprehensive eviction guide that helps tenants facing eviction was recently launched by the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. The guide explains options and helps with filling out necessary forms.

“The legal process can be so difficult for people who are not experienced with how courts work, how to file forms, what forms to file and how to calculate those deadlines,” said Dahlia Romano, a staff attorney at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. “We thought that releasing this eviction guide would at least give tenants who aren’t able to be connected with a lawyer a better chance to represent themselves successfully.”

While she applauds the state for being the third in the country to sign off on a statewide right to counsel program, Romano said there is still a long way to go. For instance, it took more than three years for New York City to expand its tenant right to counsel program from its first 15 pilot ZIP codes across the city.

What more can be done?

While it’s a great deal to have a lawyer in court with a tenant, it can only do so much.

Rosenthal said the program is helping tenants buy more time in some cases. But if a landlord wants someone to leave, they will need to do so eventually.

“In terms of staying, that’s a very hard proposition … anecdotally we’re seeing a lot of landlords who want to move people out, slap on a coat of paint and raise the rent by $500,” she said.

The situation isn’t necessarily easy for all landlords either.

“There’s an impression that landlords have plenty of money to pay for fancy lawyers and things like that. And the truth is, they don’t,” said Yona Gregory. She’s a landlord and owner of the Law Office of Yona Gregory, which exclusively represents thousands of landlords a year in evictions.

She said she has many clients who are small mom-and-pop landlords and who found themselves in tough situations during the pandemic as well.

“It’s a job. It’s not like someone dumps a building and all of a sudden money is flowing in. It’s a job like anything else. It’s a difficult job, particularly when you have the government saying you’re no longer being paid for an entire year for doing your job,” Gregory said.

Most of her clients want cases to be resolved in a fair and equitable way and support any resources that help tenants better understand the process, but they still see a gap.

“I would like to see the program be a program that assists people in realistic solutions,” Gregory said. “Help tenants resolve what got them into the position of being evicted in the first place.”

Both landlord and tenant advocates agree that true housing justice can’t start in court, but beyond it.

Even if an eviction is withdrawn or dismissed, it still remains on the state’s judicial website and can follow a tenant into their housing search, ultimately limiting their options. Rosenthal said the right to counsel should go hand in hand with eviction record reform.

“Anecdotally, we’re seeing a lot of landlords that are saying, ‘I don’t care what the outcome was. The fact that you have an eviction record at all, I don’t want to rent,’” Rosenthal said. “We need to recognize that certain kinds of eviction records are not necessarily an indication of whether someone is a good or bad tenant.”

As was the case for Alicia Arnold. She said her eviction wasn’t because she was a bad tenant; it resulted from extreme pressures on the housing market.

Thanks to the right to counsel program, her eviction will soon be behind her, she said, as she has her eye on a new apartment.

“I’m already packed. I’m ready to go. I’m ready to just move in and fix my place the way I want and just be happy,” Arnold said. “I’m happy legal aid is there to help people because now I get to start a new beginning.”

Corrected: December 2, 2022 at 10:37 AM EST
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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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