New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)

State vows to get aid to renters

U.S. Supreme Court overturns eviction ban, raising the stakes

- By Ginny Monk

Despite sluggish progress so far, Connecticu­t officials say they’re on track to meet a looming deadline to dole out tens of millions of dollars in federal aid to help renters struggling financiall­y from the pandemic make payments.

Tens of thousands of Connecticu­t renters are behind on payments. A

U.S. Supreme Court ruling Thursday night ended a moratorium on many evictions for nonpayment of rent. The court said evictions can resume.

“We aren’t worried about meeting that number,” Dawn Parker, director of Connecticu­t’s emergency rental assistance program, said of a September deadline. “As long as we meet our obligation­s, I’m happy. We want to work as efficientl­y and quickly as we can while preventing fraud and abuse.”

Only about 29 percent, or $68.8 million, of the state’s $235.9 million in federal rental assistance had

been spent as of Friday, even though the federal government distribute­d the money months ago. But officials say recent adjustment­s to the distributi­on mean they’re on track to meet a deadline to obligate 65 percent of the funds by the end of September. States that don’t meet that deadline may risk losing the money.

The aid can be a lifeline for renters like Roxane Balderacch­i.

After working for more than 20 years as a server in the restaurant business, the 67-year-old Middletown resident lost her job when the restaurant she was working at opted for deliveryon­ly service during the first months of the pandemic. She was able to make ends meet for several months, but in August 2020, she started to fall behind.

But Balderacch­i was able to catch up thanks to money she received through a government rental aid program. She first received $4,000 through a different program, called the State of Connecticu­t Temporary Rental Housing Assistance Program last fall.

And about two weeks ago, she got another $9,317 to pay rent owed as well as $3,339 to cover the next three months.

“It makes me feel a lot better. I don’t like to owe anybody,” she said.

Over the next few months, instead of worrying about rent, Balderacch­i plans to keep applying for jobs.

“Applicatio­ns are flowing, and I take a lot of tests every week, that’s for sure,” she said. “I will get back in the workforce and be myself again.”

Balderacch­i is one of 8,828 renters in Connecticu­t to get emergency rental assistance through UniteCT, the state program providing rent assistance to tenants affected by COVID-19.

It covers up to $15,000 in rent and up to $1,500 in electricit­y payments for households that earn up to 80 percent of area median income and were financiall­y impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the program has reached only a small share of those struggling to pay rent.

In Connecticu­t, 63,450 were behind on rent as of early August, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Pulse Household Survey. They were among nearly 8 million people behind on rent nationwide.

The money has been slow to get out across the country. Nationally, about 89 percent of the $46.5 billion set aside for the federal program remains unspent.

Housing experts have blamed the slow rollout on understaff­ed programs, burdensome documentat­ion requiremen­ts, and landlords who don’t want to participat­e, among other problems.

While aid has started to go out quicker recently, there are still problems that need to be addressed in many states and municipali­ties, including Connecticu­t, advocates said.

“We’ve seen over the past few months that states really are beginning to ramp up, but there’s definitely still work to be done on the programs,” said Sarah Gallagher, project director for the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s End Rental Arrears to Stop Evictions initiative.

Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling that ended a temporary ban on many evictions has heightened the urgency around getting the money to renters.

The ban was set to expire in October. It had been in place since September 2020 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention instituted it to slow the spread of COVID-19 by preventing people from having to enter homeless shelters or move in with friends and family.

Landlord and real estate groups challenged the moratorium

in court, and in a 6-3 ruling, the nation’s top court said Thursday evictions can begin again unless Congress authorizes another eviction ban.

‘Creating the machine’

Housing attorneys said the early rendition of the applicatio­n process was challengin­g for many tenants.

“One of the initial issues, for example, was once you uploaded documents, you couldn’t go back and redo them or re-submit,” said Pamela Heller, a staff attorney with the Connecticu­t Fair Housing Center. “If something was wrong, you were stuck with it. … The actual online platform has improved.”

The federal dollars went out at the start of the year, but Connecticu­t’s program didn’t launch until March. The first couple of months were spent reviewing software programs, and immediatel­y after the start, officials had to troublesho­ot problems and eliminate barriers, Parker said.

“We were building the plane while we were flying it,” Parker said. “The first three months really were creating the machine. It wasn’t expected that you could really get too much out the door at that time.”

The past few months, however, have seen “consistent, steady growth,” Parker said.

Federal and state data show that spending has grown from less than 10 percent of total funds by the end of July to about 29 percent toward the end of August.

“It has gotten better, there’s no question,” Heller said. “I’ve been seeing people actually get money, which I hadn’t seen for months.”

Since the program’s launch, UniteCT has also allowed tenants to self-attest to facts such as income, and tenants in qualified census tracts can use their addresses as their income attestatio­ns, Parker said. That’s helped speed up the process.

Initially, landlords were asked

to reduce debt by 15 percent, but that policy was reversed during the summer, Parker added.

‘Still barriers’

Heller said some tenants are still encounteri­ng delays in accessing the money, often caused by an online-only applicatio­n system and landlords who don’t want to participat­e.

“There are still barriers, pretty significan­t ones,” she said.

Heller recounted one instance in which she talked a client through how to upload a document, but he didn’t understand what that meant.

“We have found that programs that have online-only applicatio­ns are creating a barrier for some of the lowest income and marginaliz­ed population­s who might not have internet access or access to a computer,” Gallagher said.

UniteCT only offers online applicatio­ns because it makes the review process more efficient and is more secure, Parker said.

The program has resource centers across the state where residents can go to fill out their applicatio­n. Staff are also available to answer questions over the phone at 1-844-864-8328, and the UniteCT Mobile Bus travels around Connecticu­t so people can use computers its to fill out applicatio­ns.

For Balderacch­i, the online applicatio­n wasn’t a problem, even back in March, but she did encounter other issues.

Despite keeping in communicat­ion with the company she rents from about the process, Balderacch­i said when it came time for the company to fulfill its part of the applicatio­n process, there was a hitch. The company didn’t want to participat­e in the program, she said.

The company couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.

Eventually, she was given an eviction notice and was told she had just a few days to leave her apartment in late June or early July 2021. The federal ban on

many evictions for nonpayment of rent didn’t prevent them from being filed, and in some cases, judges would rule that the order didn’t apply.

Heller helped her handle the notice, and she was able to stay in her apartment. Balderacch­i has since gotten the money paid against her owed rent and has three extra months of rent paid.

In Connecticu­t, landlords must have a case number with UniteCT in order to deliver an eviction notice, called a notice to quit, according to a June 30 executive order from Gov. Ned Lamont.

While this helps most of the time because it forces landlords and tenants to interact with the rental assistance program before an eviction can occur, some landlords are still reluctant to participat­e, Heller said.

In those instances, UniteCT employees will typically call the landlords to see if they can resolve any concerns, Parker said.

While some programs across the country have allowed money to go directly to tenants if the landlords don’t want to participat­e, in

Connecticu­t landlords have to agree to participat­e for tenants to receive money.

However, if landlords refuse and efforts to convince them to participat­e don’t work, UniteCT will pay for the deposit and three months rent at a new apartment for the tenant, Parker said.

The money is only meant to pay for rent and electricit­y, not late fees, pet fees or other costs. But in Balderacch­i’s case, her landlord applied some of the money to fees.

So attorneys again had to work it out so that she got her rent fully covered. Heller said she and the other attorneys involved have agreed that the applicatio­n of money to the fees was in error, but it hadn’t yet been corrected as of Friday.

“I just hope they get the rest of it straighten­ed out,” she said.

 ?? Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticu­t Media file photo ?? A New Haven contingent of the #CancelTheR­ents car rallies prepares to leave New Haven City Hall on March 30, 2020.
Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticu­t Media file photo A New Haven contingent of the #CancelTheR­ents car rallies prepares to leave New Haven City Hall on March 30, 2020.

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