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Hartford tenants, immigrant rights group call for urgent action on housing equity

Hartford tenants and immigrant rights group Make the Road CT are raising the alarm about substandard living conditions.
Make the Road CT
Connecticut Public
Hartford tenants and immigrant rights group Make the Road CT are raising the alarm about substandard living conditions.

In a demonstration organized by immigration advocates Make the Road CT, tenants took to the streets of Hartford this week, demanding justice for housing issues ranging from poor living conditions to intermittent heating.

Advocates represent people like Maria Zuniga, an immigrant from Peru who said she endured a two-year housing nightmare marked by discrimination and unsanitary conditions. Her landlord allegedly targeted her due to language barriers and her Peruvian background.

“They insulted me for being Peruvian, telling me that I was the daughter of the devil,” Zuniga said.

Zuniga said she paid $1,200 monthly for a one-bedroom apartment in Manchester. The cramped living situation forced her family to share rooms and convert a closet into a makeshift bedroom.

Soon after, the family experienced issues, such as toilet flooding and a severe cockroach infestation that negatively impacted her son's health, leading to asthma complications.

“My family went through a lot of abuse. I have a 14-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son,” Zuniga said. “We were told that we were illegal, and they threatened us, saying they would call immigration on us."

After Zuniga’s complaints, she said the landlord reportedly took no action, worsening the family's already challenging living conditions. Despite finding a new residence, the struggle persisted as they grappled with the ongoing challenge of high rent costs, highlighting broader issues immigrants face in securing stable and affordable housing.

The Tenant Union, active for the past two years, voiced concerns about mass evictions and the impact of corporate property acquisitions.

Make the Road CT's housing outreach organizer, Teresa Quintana highlighted the struggles many, particularly single mothers, have faced to recover financially since the onset of COVID-19. She said the protest aimed to draw attention to exploitative practices by corporate landlords, including increased rents and neglect of essential services.

Recent federal data from Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress (AHAR) highlights trends in homelessness in the last 4 years, with a 14% increase for women and a 15% increase for men.

Specific corporations were singled out by Quintana for alleged exploitative practices. Tenants reported exorbitant rents and a lack of janitorial services in the buildings owned by these corporations.

Quintana also emphasized the importance of language justice, noting that public information hotlines like 311 were initially only available in English. She said Make the Road CT advocated for inclusive information.

“Many people in a undocumented community live in multifamily housing and they are living in horrible conditions and nobody's doing nothing about that,” Quintana said.

Immigrant tenants said they're living without a formal lease agreement, signing documents in a language they don't understand, leaving them vulnerable to abrupt eviction or unannounced rent hikes. Advocates express frustration, noting repeated complaints to the city about such practices, yet no accountability has been imposed on these landlords.

“For our last actions, we invited the new Mayor of Hartford. We want to know if he's going to be doing something for our community,” Quintana said. “But he never answers our letters. Politicians need to go to our community. This plea for changes is ridiculous.”

A spokesperson for Hartford Mayor Arunan Arulampalam told Connecticut Public they received an initial letter from Quintana's group. Officials said they sent a letter to Make The Road CT last Friday inviting them to speak about housing issues with the mayor, but did not receive a response.

While acknowledging the positive impact of Latino panel events like the First Latino And Puerto Rican Agenda Summit that took place earlier this month in Hartford, Quintana urged for a more diverse representation in advocacy efforts. She emphasized the need to engage directly with front-line workers who understand the day-to-day struggles of the Hispanic community.

“They don't talk about housing the way they have to. I can tell you what is the view of our immigrant community, the undocumented. I can tell you how our community, who are in Section Eight [housing], actually suffer from oppression because they don't want to lose their vouchers,” Quintana said.

Quintana challenged the notion of "affordable housing" being built across the state, arguing that it primarily benefits mid-income individuals. She called for fundamental changes to housing laws in Connecticut to address the real crisis faced by low-income communities.

Looking ahead to the 2024 presidential election year, Quintana stressed the need to identify the core interests driving the community's and politicians' relationship, urging people to seek transparency and representation.

“They've worked for their own interests," she said. “We vote for people to represent us. They don't work for us. They work for corporations. They work for landlords.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the mayor’s office did not receive a letter from Make the Road CT. The mayor's office said it did get an initial letter from Make The Road CT. The mayor’s office said they sent a letter to the group inviting them to discuss housing issues, but did not receive a response.

Maricarmen Cajahuaringa is a journalist with extensive experience in Latino communities' politics, social issues, and culture. She founded Boceto Media, a digital Spanish-language newspaper based in Connecticut. Maricarmen holds a Bachelor's in Social Work from Springfield College, and a Master's in Journalism and Media Production from Sacred Heart University. As a reporter for Connecticut Public, she is dedicated to delivering accurate and informative coverage of the Hispanic/Latino population in the region. Maricarmen is an experienced and passionate journalist who strives to bring a voice to the stories of her community.

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