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Tensions flare at CT public hearing as residents call for ethical approach to evictions, rent hikes

Hannah Srajer, President of the Connecticut Tenant’s Union, and a proponent of SB 143, An Act Concerning Evictions for Cause, listens to Connecticut senator Robert Sampson, who is opposed to the bill, during a public hearing Tuesday, February 20, 2024, in front of the The Housing Committee. In her opening remarks, Srajer said, “Passing just cause this session is an urgent step we can take as a state to start remediating the housing crisis before us. Homelessness in this state is growing rapidly. The number of homeless children in some cities are doubling. People are working two three jobs to afford rents that only grow higher and higher each year. Every renter in this room, every renter watching, is experiencing the housing crisis as their personal reality, not as a headline in the news.”
Mark Mirko
Connecticut Public
During her public testimony, Hannah Srajer, President of the Connecticut Tenant’s Union, and a proponent of SB 143, listens to Connecticut senator Robert Sampson voice his opposition to the bill.

Imelda Barajas, originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, has lived in Hartford for 18 years.

Recently, she was one of the more than 200 individuals who testified at a state legislature public hearing on a bill that would require landlords to show cause for evicting tenants, shedding light on undocumented immigrants' struggles to secure housing.

Barajas highlighted the numerous barriers she and her family have encountered since arriving in the United States, including language barriers and the fear of retaliation from landlords. She expressed frustration with the arbitrary actions of landlords, such as neglecting to make necessary repairs and threatening eviction when tenants raise concerns.

“We fear speaking out because landlords threaten us with eviction,” she said. “Rent increases are causing significant stress and impacting our mental health.”

The bill — an act concerning evictions for cause or SB 143 — aims to revise current statutes concerning landlords and tenants. It clarifies the circumstances under which a landlord can remove a tenant from their residence, such as nonpayment of rent or lease violations. Additionally, it addresses the conversion of properties into condominiums, ensuring tenants are adequately informed and protected throughout the transition. The bill would also mandate that landlords provide justification for rent increases and give tenants prior notice.

The recent rising cost of rent has added to the burden of fighting for housing repairs, Barajas testified, forcing her and her family to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

“Many of us are forced to work two or three jobs just to afford rent. I had high hopes when I first arrived in this country, but now it feels like a nightmare,” Barajas said.

Barajas believes that everyone, regardless of immigration status, deserves safe and affordable housing without the fear of exploitation or discrimination.

Hannah Srajer, president of the CT Tenants Union, voiced the concerns of numerous residents grappling with eviction threats. She highlighted prevalent challenges like unjust month-to-month contracts, often agreed upon due to limited resources or undocumented status, alongside instances of tenants shouldering maintenance costs and facing retaliatory actions from both corporate and individual landlords.

During the public hearing, the atmosphere intensified when Republican State Sen. Rob Sampson, who's a real estate agent and landlord, seemed suspicious of the bill's intentions to limit landlords.

“What we're talking about is people's rights. OK,” Sampson said.

“We're talking about people's lives!” Srajer said.

“Certainly … And I believe that the policy that you're putting forward puts more people in jeopardy,” Sampson said.

“Would you agree there's a power imbalance between the person who owns the property and the person who seeks to be housed by the property?” Srajer asked.

“Yeah, and generally speaking it is in favor of the tenant,” Sampson said, as the crowd of fair housing advocates laughed.

Shmuel Izinberg, a landlord and owner of Ocean Management in New Haven, testified during the hearing. He emphasized the importance of fair rent regulations, which are typically monitored by fair rent commissions as required by law. Izinberg asserted that property owners must have the ability to establish and collect rent fairly, considering market dynamics. However, he expressed concern that allowing tenants indefinite occupancy without restrictions could undermine the rights of property owners like himself.

Teresa Quintana, a housing equity organizer from the immigrant advocacy group Make the Road Connecticut, expressed her frustration with Sampson's viewpoint, highlighting the disconnect between politicians and the communities they represent.

“The politicians that are sitting there, they don't know who they are representing,” Quintana said.

She said for her, this raised ethical concerns about legislators who are landlords participating in public hearings related to housing laws, and she called for greater transparency and accountability in legislative representation to ensure fair and equitable housing policies.

“There is a conflict of interest,” Quintana said.

Sampson told Connecticut Public he is aware of claims that he has a conflict of interest as a full-time realtor and landlord.

“The only way that it would be a conflict is if there is a direct financial benefit to me to support or oppose the measure. The properties that I own are not impacted by this bill, which is limited to five-unit buildings or more,” Sampson said. “By that same logic, should we not have medical doctors and nurses on the Public Health Committee? Or, should we not have teachers on the Education Committee, or lawyers on the Judiciary Committee?”

Luke Melonakos-Harrison, representing the Connecticut Tenants Union, explained that arbitrary evictions, often employed as a means of retaliation against tenants concerned about housing conditions, pose a significant threat to housing stability and community well-being.

“Women-led households with children are the category of families most severely impacted by eviction. Seniors who live alone are just trying to hang on to the home they've been in for a long time, and young families who often work two to three jobs to keep up with the cost of rent,” Melonakos-Harrison said.

Highlighting the Connecticut Fair Housing Center's statistics of eviction rates in urban centers like Hartford, Bridgeport and Waterbury, Melonakos-Harrison called for comprehensive legislative action to address the root causes of eviction and housing instability.

An analysis of the same data by CT Data Collaborative found Black renters are over three times more likely than white renters to face eviction, and Hispanic/Latino renters are over two times more likely than white renters.

He urged policymakers to prioritize the needs of marginalized communities and enact measures to protect tenants' rights and ensure affordable housing for all residents.

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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