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As rent increases, Connecticut tenants push back

Tenant union members pose for a photo after their rally in front of Ocean Management's office. They delivered a signed letter stating they refused the rent increases.
Shahrzad Rasekh
CT Mirror
Tenant union members pose for a photo after their rally in front of Ocean Management's office. They delivered a signed letter stating they refused the rent increases.

This session, the Connecticut General Assembly failed to pass a bill to regulate rent increases. The issue drew some of the session’s largest groups of the largest and longest public hearings. Despite the bill’s failure in committee, tenants say they won’t stop fighting for limits on how much they have to pay.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Keila Torres Ocasio to discuss an article she edited, “As CT rent costs rise, tenants plan next steps for push to cap increases,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, Kelia. Connecticut does not have rent caps. But there are some examples of tenants seeking redress. Ginny Monk writes about one of them, the Clinton fair rent Commission and the case of Debbi Halsted, could you tell us more about that?

KTO: Sure. So Debbi Halsted is a Clinton resident, and over the last few weeks has been really worried about her rent because it was going to be increased by like 90%. It was a really, really large increase. And she's on a fixed income. And so she was worried that she would just not be able to pay that rent. So she went to the Fair Housing Commission. And they actually sided with her and said, yes, that is too much. That is astronomical, or I can't remember the word they used, but it was harsh. And they lowered the increase to something that she could manage better. The landlord had argued his side of the argument and had said, I put a lot of money into this building, rents in this area are similar to what I was proposing. So there's, you know, there's the two sides of the story. But for Debbi, not having a rent cap really would have hurt her if the commission hadn't sided with her.

WSHU: Well, in this past legislative session, renters tried to organize and get some type of legislation through. What were they looking for, and what were they able to get?

KTO: They weren't able to get much. So they were looking for a rent cap of something like 2.5% to 3% rent cap. What the legislature ended up proposing was a 4% rent cap, which was a little higher than they had initially asked for. But even that wasn't able to get through the legislature. There just wasn't the votes to be able to pass that. And I think, you know, there was a lot of back and forth. There was a public hearing, in I think February that lasted hours and hours into the night. And it was a back and forth between landlords and tenants, saying, you know, we can't afford these rents on the tenant side. And we can't afford to have this housing if we don't raise the rents on the landlord's side. So it's a very controversial and contentious issue, because there's so many people involved on both sides of the equation.

WSHU: The tenants have tried to get together and form a tenants union. Could you just tell us about that and how far they've gotten as far as that's concerned?

KTO: Yeah. So they formed the Connecticut Tenants Union, which is a group that really kind of helps people form unions for their own buildings or properties. So there's individual unions that have popped up all over the state of people who have gotten together and said, If we get together and work as a group, we'll be able to get more done than if we work as individual tenants. And so this group has been trying to push for more people to unionize. They've been trying to give information and help to people who are unionizing and also try to give them resources. And so one of the things that they've been pushing for is, if you're really having trouble and you can't get any relief. They're advising that maybe they withhold rent, which is a big one because there's lots of repercussions to withholding your rent, if the landlord doesn't end up picking your side or considering your side. That's one of the things that they've kind of been pushing for is, if you unionize, if we get together, we'll have more power than if you're just an individual person trying to get your landlord to agree to lower your rent or not increase your rent.

WSHU: And some cities and some communities have tried to help out by passing local ordinances. I think New Haven is one of them. Could you just tell us what New Haven has done as far as trying to help with tenants unions?

KTO: Yeah, so New Haven has recognized tenants unions, which just means that when they want to file a complaint about rent increase, they can do it as a group, so that the union itself can can file the complaint instead of an individual person having to file a complaint, or multiple people having to file a complaint from the same property. So the complaint is considered as a group, which I think gives a level of a little bit of help, because you have multiple people saying we can't afford this, rather than just one person saying I can't afford this. So New Haven really kind of helps them in that regard, where they can file as a group and not have to do it all individually.

WSHU: Now, I spoke with Senator Marilyn Moore from Bridgeport, who is chair of the Housing Committee. And she brought up a specific example of something that she hadn't even known anything about before the session, and that was mobile homes, and the problems that renters have with mobile homes. And they were able to pass some legislation as far as that was concerned. But she said she was not aware of the problems that mobile homeowners and renters have. Could you just give us a little bit of an insight on what the issue is, as far as mobile homes are concerned?

KTO: Sure, mobile homes, mobile home owners, or sometimes they're called manufactured homes, they own the building, but they don't own the land it sits on, so they rent the land it sits on. And so that's where the rent increases come in, where they, whoever they're renting the land from, increases their rent on that land. And so one of the things that mobile homeowners have said is, you know, rent cap will help us as well, because that way, the land that we're renting, the rent wouldn't go up more than we can afford, or wouldn't go up as quickly as it might without a rent cap. But because the rent cap didn't pass, that's not going to help them, but what did help them is the right of first refusal, which is something that did pass and that just gives mobile homeowners the right to refuse the property if it's being sold. So if the owner of the land that the building sits on decides to sell that land, they have to first go to the mobile home owner and say, Do you want to buy this land? And then they can either say yes, or they can say no, but they can't go somewhere else to try to sell the land before offering it to the mobile homeowners.

WSHU: And what we have in right now we have in a housing crisis in Connecticut. So, any relief for renters on the horizon?

KTO: There's some help in the omnibus bill, there were some tenants rights measures that were enacted, there's one that helps people who've been evicted, it helps you so that after a certain period of time, your eviction kind of falls off your record. So that helps people because once you have an eviction on your record, it's very hard to get a property or convince a property owner to rent to you even if the eviction was years ago. So this would help them so that it falls off after a certain period. And that way, you know, they can then have a so-called clean record. So that's one of the measures that passed, there were several others that also helped. It's a lot of just helping renters kind of not get taken advantage of, there was one other provision that had capped late fees on rents. And it also had it so that renters would have to have a walkthrough of a property before they rented the property. So right now you don't have to walk someone through a property. And there's also kind of a checklist that they're going to come up with so that if you do see issues within your apartment while you're doing the walkthrough, you can flag those and say, okay, these are the issues that exist now. So that that doesn't come back to bite you when you move out. You can kind of have proof that those issues were there before you moved in.

WSHU: So basically, Kelia, they've done a few things to try and help renters, but no rent caps.

KTO: No rent caps. No. But it's not something that's going to go away. I think these advocates that are really pushing for rent caps are going to continue pushing for it. And the tenants union is in the process of getting bylaws and officers installed and trying to formalize its setup so that it's able to then go out and fundraise or get money so that they can then hire lobbyists, which, you know, helps go to the legislature and say here are the issues that are affecting tenants. So they're looking for ways to kind of push forward with this rent cap. Even if it didn't pass this year. They're hoping that maybe in future years it will pass.

WSHU: Well, thank you so much, Kelia.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.