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Why CT advocates still expect an eviction surge

On Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democratic leaders are calling on the Biden administration to immediately extend the nation’s eviction moratorium.

HARTFORD, Conn. — With a federal freeze on most evictions that expired on Saturday and a gubernatorial executive order expiring Sept. 30, housing advocates expect to see more evictions and more people seeking homeless services. Gov. Ned Lamont's latest executive order requires landlords to seek rental assistance before commencing the eviction process. As of July 28, nearly $41 million of the roughly $400 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds for the UniteCT program had been disbursed to 5,486 tenants and 2,604 landlords. Erin Kemple of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center said not enough people are being served by the program, given the large number in arrears.

On Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democratic leaders are calling on the Biden administration to immediately extend the nation’s eviction moratorium. The Democrats are calling it a “moral imperative” to prevent Americans from being put out of their homes during a COVID-19 surge. An estimated 3.6 million Americans are at risk of eviction, some as soon as Monday. Congress was unable to pass legislation swiftly to extend the ban, which expired at midnight Saturday. The White House had no direct response to the Democrats’ call for action, but administration officials have urged localities and states to tap aid already approved by Congress. 

A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year expired Saturday, after President Joe Biden's administration extended the original date by a month. The moratorium, put in place by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on their rent.

Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access nearly $47 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.

Advocates for tenants said the distribution of the money had been slow and that more time was needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who were behind on their rents.

Even with the delay, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. as of July 5 said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.

Here's the situation in Connecticut: 

WHAT'S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?

Connecticut was one of several states that enacted its own eviction moratorium in 2020. The state's rule, which prevented landlords from filing most new eviction cases, with certain exceptions, expired on June 30. 

Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont, however, signed an executive order on the same day that requires landlords to apply to the state's UniteCT rental assistance program prior to issuing an eviction notice to tenants for nonpayment of rent.

Among other things, Lamont's order also requires a stay in eviction proceedings of up to 30 days if either the landlord or the tenant applies to the UniteCT program for relief.

WHAT'S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

Using roughly $400 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds, the state developed the UniteCT Program to provide both rental and utility payment assistance to qualified households impacted by the pandemic. As of July 28, nearly $41 million has been disbursed to 5,486 tenants and 2,604 landlords. Additionally, more than $2.2 million has been disbursed for unpaid utility bills.

U.S. Census data released July 22 estimates more than 70,000 renters have no confidence they will be able to pay next month's rent. "So we are serving a lot of the people who need service, but not enough. Certainly not enough," said Erin Kemple, executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center.

According to survey data released July 5, it was "very likely" that an estimated 1,712 renters would leave their homes in the next two months due to eviction while 25,005 were "somewhat likely." Kemple said those numbers don't provide an accurate picture of the situation because some respondents may not have known that Connecticut's eviction moratorium ended on June 30 and the federal one is set to expire on Saturday.

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

Eviction hearings are still being held remotely because of pandemic restrictions, but are expected to eventually resume in-person as state court operations continue to open back up. Meanwhile, the state is using federal COVID-19 relief funds to provide low-income tenants with no-cost legal representation for eviction proceedings or administrative proceedings. 

As of Thursday, there were 1,843 cases pending.

While a large number of eviction cases were filed right after Lamont's executive order was issued, Kemple said the numbers have dropped in the last week or so. She equates the decline to court clerks looking closely at eviction case files. If they don't see an application for the UniteCT relief funds filed as part of an eviction action, then the case cannot be filed. 

HOW AFFORDABLE IS HOUSING IN THE STATE'S RENTAL MARKETS?

The "rent burden" in Connecticut — the percentage of households that spend 30% or more of their income on rent — is near or exceeds 50% in most counties, according to AffordCT, a housing database. In June, the overall median rent in the Hartford metro area was $1,545 a month, and the median two-bedroom cost $1,750 a month, according to  data from Realtor.com.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

Kemple said she expects to see an increase in the number of people seeking access to homeless shelters once Lamont's executive order requiring landlords to apply to UniteCT expires on Sept. 30. That's also when an order expires that permits state officials to provide "non-congregate" housing, such as hotel rooms instead of shelters, for people experiencing homelessness in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Kemple said her group is now worried about families doubling up with relatives or friends.

"Recent studies have shown that the communities with highest eviction rates also have the lowest vaccination rates," she said. "We expect to see a spike in infections as a result."

Her group has asked the Lamont administration to make the application process for the rental assistance program easier and to allow renters to receive the funds directly, instead of going to the landlords since some landlords don't want to participate in UniteCT.

Aaron Turner, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Housing, recently said the state is "making every effort, through a wide variety of programs and initiatives" to prevent a surge in homelessness. 

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