Norm, a Hartford resident, remembers the day last August when he received a letter from his landlords telling him that his rent was going up $200.
He had just moved back into his apartment after spending over a year living with and helping out his parents during the pandemic. He worked in the arts, he said, which meant that he had been out of a job ever since theaters had closed down because of COVID. But he continued to pay the $900-a-month rent on his apartment in Hartford, waiting for the moment when he could move back.
“I was spending my savings just paying my rent and the lockdown just kept dragging on and on. I had this very tenuous budget going where I basically only had two more months of rent budgeted,” said Norm, who asked to be identified by his nickname. “[It] caused a great deal of personal, mental strife and anguish and obviously a lot of disappointment – like, wow, I’ve just thrown $11,000 of savings down the drain for an apartment that I can’t afford to live in anymore.”
Norm isn’t the only one who found out that his rent was going up this year. Sarah White, a staff attorney at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, said she has seen rents increasing by 15 to 20 percent this year in certain areas of the state.
“I would say this is off the charts,” said White. “Hearing such large figures, and uniformly all across the state, really is unprecedented in the ten-ish years that I’ve been in Connecticut.”
Maryellen Shuckerow, executive director of St. Vincent De Paul in Middletown, a Catholic organization that helps homeless people find housing, said that the rent hikes were the product of “a perfect storm.” With fewer people moving during the pandemic and fewer new buildings being built because of the soaring price of building materials, there’s a shortage of open apartments.
“There’s a big demand right now for rental housing. I guess people want their own space,” said John Souza, president of the Connecticut Coalition of Property Owners.
Souza said that inflation was also pushing rents up, and that landlords were being much more cautious after having negative experiences with renters during the pandemic.
“I know people are getting burned for $10- to $20,000 on a single unit,” he said. “Too many people got burned and they’re not happy about it. So now they’re very, very careful who they rent to.”
Shuckerow said this makes it particularly difficult for her clients, many of whom are or were homeless and don’t necessarily have good records around rentals and evictions.
White said that in addition to the rent increases, some of the tenants were dealing with apartments that the landlords weren’t taking care of.
“There’s some folks I spoke to in Hartford who have rats and roaches — things are not getting repaired. There’s water damage, all sorts of problems. But the landlord is still requesting even more rent from them,” said White.
This was the case for Norm as well, who said that during his time there, tenants had their parking lot taken away and there were problems with trash collection and the mail. He said that he and his neighbors formed a tenant’s union to address the problem with the mail, which was eventually resolved.
Right now, he said, the front gate had been wide open for a week — the lock broke and no one has fixed it.
White said that when a landlord raises rent, a tenant doesn’t have much recourse. Sometimes she said, they can negotiate with the landlord, but there’s no guarantee that will work.
“People are kind of panicking because there’s really nowhere else to go. They don’t have a lot of choice other than to pay it, but a lot of folks can’t afford it,” said White.
Shuckerow said there was another reason that rising rents are particularly problematic right now — the aid opportunities that existed at the start of the pandemic, like the stimulus checks and child tax credit, are no longer available to fall back on. She said that some of her clients have gotten help through the UniteCT fund — a $406 million fund for rent assistance that helped people during the pandemic. It also bought them time, since landlords could not evict tenants in the process of applying for aid from the fund.
However, the fund has since gone dry. At a press conference on Tuesday, State Rep. Geraldo Reyes, D-Waterbury, requested that the fund be increased by a minimum of $250 million.
“The people that are applying now were the last to find out and probably the most that needed it because they just didn’t get the communication of how that process works,” said Reyes.
“Everybody should have their say”
In some towns and cities there exists one other option for fighting rent increases — a “Fair Rent Commission,” a board of people who listen to tenant complaints concerning rent increases, and who ultimately rule on whether or not the increase is legitimate.
A bill introduced in the legislature would make it mandatory for any town greater than 25,000 people — roughly the size of Ridgefield — to have such a commission. About 45 communities would be required to form a rent commission under the bill.
“This is a way of empowering communities to be able to have an additional voice,” State Rep. Quentin “Q” Williams, D-Middletown, chair of the Housing Committee, told CT Examiner. “I would dare say it’s a no cost way of bringing to light a major crisis that is happening throughout the entire state of Connecticut.”
Originally the bill would have required fair rent commissions in towns with a population greater than 14,000, but the number was later increased to 25,000.
Souza said that, while he didn’t agree with the idea of placing a mandate on towns, he understood why tenants would want such a commission.
“I think we live in a place where everybody should have their say,” said Souza. “I’ve always treated tenants fairly … I know some people come in from out of state or whatever — maybe they don’t treat people so fairly and [tenants[ should have some recourse.”
Under current statute, any town that wants to form a Fair Rent Commission can, but so far, only about 21 have done so. And in some municipalities that already have Fair Rent Commissions, like Bridgeport and Colchester, the positions remain vacant.
White said that many of the Fair Rent Commissions started up in various towns about 50 years ago and expanded up through the 1990s and early 2000s, when there were more cases that needed to be heard. In recent years, she said, as rent prices stayed relatively flat, the committees sometimes stopped meeting or were left with vacancies.
For towns where the commission has become defunct, White said, the next step is making people aware that these commissions exist.
“We already have the structure, we know that it works. We just need them to be in more places – and yes, for towns where they have sort of atrophied or people don’t know about them, more needs to be done so that tenants know that this is an option,” said White.
Not everyone is in favor of the bill. State Sen. Paul Cicarella, R-North Haven, raised concern about the cost of the mandate on municipalities in a Housing Committee meeting on March 10.
“I understand what this is trying to do and I think it is a good idea … but again, just mandating municipalities to do this is a concern of mine.,” said Cicarella.
Betsy Gara, the executive director of Connecticut Council of Small Towns, said she was opposed to any bill that required the towns to form an extra commission, and that it can be hard to find volunteers for such a board. The Connecticut Association of Realtors said in testimony that they felt the administrative costs of the commission would put an unnecessary burden on the towns, and possibly increase both property taxes and rents.
“The new commissions would require town administrative and financial resources, which would very likely drive property taxes even higher in those municipalities as the funding would have to come from somewhere … In addition, anything increasing property taxes would likely drive up rents throughout a city or town,” the association wrote in their testimony.
White however said that most municipalities use already existing positions to do the work necessary for the commission to function. The commission is made up of volunteers. Funding for housing inspections, she said, should already be in the town’s budget since people have the right to ask for them.
“It’s not much administrative or fiscal burden and there’s also very little risk of liability for the town,” said White.
“Some sort of recourse”
Colette Kroop, the program specialist at Hamden’s Office of Community Development, said that having a fair-rent commission in the town was a benefit to the residents, and acted as a “backup” for when their office wasn’t able to resolve disputes through mediation. Kroop said that the town’s budget for the commission is about $1,000 yearly, and it isn’t always used. They said the commission itself has only met a few times over the last decade.
“The great thing about the fair rent commission is that they don’t have to meet very often,” said Kroop. “The idea of the fair rent commission serves as a backup … if we’re not able to work through this for mediation, that [tenants[ know that there’s more specific the processes that they can go through.”
Kroop said that Hamden, a town of just over 61,000 residents, receives fair rent complaints between once and twice a month. Kroop’s office generally handles cases where there’s a rent increase of over five percent or when tenants are living in unsafe conditions — such as mold or lead in an apartment, or some type of infestation. Most of the time Kroop said that their office is able to address the complaints through mediation without having to involve the commission.
According to Kroop, mediation is helpful not just to tenants but also to landlords, since it can resolve issues without having to go to court.
“It takes resources to go to hearing. It takes resources to try to evict someone. And being able to mediate with both parties to find a medium that works for both of them saves them the time, money and the administrative effort,” sad Kroop.
Neil Griffin Jr, the executive director of the Housing Authority of the Town of Glastonbury, a town of about 31,000, said that the commission has not received a complaint since 2017. However, he agreed with Kroop about the commission’s value as a deterrent.
“If nothing else, it gets the tenant and landlord together to reach an agreement that’s agreeable to both,” he said.
He said that many times, tenants reach out to the housing authority just to get information about what constitutes an unfair rent. Landlords who reach out, he said, will sometimes reconsider rent increases after hearing about the commission’s authority.
“Once they understand that the commission has the power to issue subpoenas, administer oaths, issue orders, and make a determination of what the rent will be, and it’s enforceable — that’s a strong incentive for the parties to agree to terms,” said Griffin.
Other commissions, such as those in Hartford and New Haven, are called upon more frequently. New Haven’s Fair Rent Commission, one of the only in the state that employs staff specific to the commission, in 2019 cut a tenant’s rent in half in response to a rat infestation, and it helped prompt a deal between a landlord and a tenant whose rent had increased 65 percent.
Wildaliz Bermudez, the current executive director of New Haven’s Fair Housing Commission, said she felt that other large towns should form rent commissions, especially since Connecticut does not have rent control.
“The Office of Fair Rent in New Haven far too often is contacted by residents of neighboring communities seeking help with rent increases but the Office only has authority within the borders of New Haven,” said Bermudez in a statement.
Hartford is another municipality with an active Fair Rent Commission — the commission heard 35 cases between June and November of 2021. That was where Norm brought his case.
“For like a good month before this hearing, I wasn’t able to pursue any of those things I really needed to or wanted to just because I was so shaken,” he said.
He said that after explaining the situation, the commission agreed that the increase was unacceptable, and ruled that his rent would remain the same for another year.
Now, he said, he’s working on finding another place to live. He said that given all the maintenance problems in the buildings and the cost, he doesn’t want to stay — although he’s not convinced he’ll find someplace better.
“Maybe it’s fantasy for me to think that there is going to be some better place on the other side of the fence,” he said.
Norm said that while he was glad the commission existed, he wished it had been a little more “robust.” It was only through White that he discovered the commission existed, and it hadn’t been easy to get in touch with them.
“It would be great … if every tenant could be aware that if you see a situation that’s unfair, you do have some sort of recourse to do something about it. Other than just asking your landlord and hoping they say yes,” said Norm.