Tenants across Connecticut are mobilizing with a message for landlords: Enough is enough.
Rents are through the roof, and tenant groups – along with housing advocates, unions and elected leaders – are pushing a legislative agenda.
The Cap the Rent campaign now has an important date. There’s a public hearing at the state capitol Tuesday on House Bill 6588, An Act Concerning Rent Stabilization.
The bill needs work, said Sarah White, staff attorney with the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, but building a statewide coalition is as necessary as any law that results.
“Organizing is so critical; it can make a law better,” White said Thursday. “But no legal change is going to fully address a lot of the problems, which are about the power differential between landlords and tenants. Legal changes need to be accompanied by people working collectively and knowing their rights.”
In the last two years the average statewide rent increase has been 20 percent, but hikes of 30 percent, even 40 percent, are not unusual, White said. With housing units scarce, landlords – particularly large corporate landlords – are feeling they have the upper hand, White said.
In the Hartford suburb of Bloomfield, she said, the landlord of an apartment complex updated the units with a goal to raise the rent. The renovations were superficial, but the $800 rent hike forced out many tenants, some of whom had lived there for 20 years, White said.
In a Greenwich townhouse complex, a father of five fears he will lose his home after the landlord offered him a new lease for $5,000 a month – a $400 increase.
The man said he told his landlord he could not pay the increase, and refused to sign the lease. Now the landlord is charging him $6,500, month to month, and the man worries that his family – including a relative who is a refugee from the war in Ukraine – will be out on the street.
He did not want his name publicized because, like many tenants, he worries the landlord will take action against him for speaking up.
Ending retaliation is as much a part of the legislative campaign as capping the rent, White said, because Connecticut now offers few protections for tenants.
“For tenants who are 62 or older, or disabled, a landlord needs a reason to ask them to move out, and rent increases have to be fair and reasonable,” White said. “But for other tenants, there is nothing to stop a landlord from raising the rent $500 or $1,500 or more, or from refusing to give someone an annual lease and going month to month instead.”
Luke Melonakos-Harrison, an organizer with the Connecticut Tenants Union, said apartment dwellers are uniting to fight such practices. So far there are tenant unions in New Haven, Hartford, Bristol, Middletown, Putnam, Willimantic and elsewhere, Melonakos-Harrison said. To unionize, 51 percent of the tenants in a building must agree.
They go up against well-financed landlords, he said.
“What’s happening, for the most part, is a large private equity company comes in, buys a big property, decreases maintenance and raises rents. Tenants are trapped in what feels like a powerless situation, with absentee management companies and retaliation that’s just egregious,” Melonakos-Harrison said.
“It’s a battle out here.”
He described a situation in New Haven that sounds a lot like those described by tenants of Stamford’s downtown and South End apartment towers.
“There’s a high-rise in New Haven that looks like luxury apartments, with 10, 15 or 20 percent rent increases,” Melonakos-Harrison said. “It has a lot of students and young professionals who, you might think, don’t have housing insecurity. But they’re living on thin margins.”
High rents are squeezing more and more people, he said.
“We’ve been in a housing crisis for the poor. We’ve been in that for a long time,” Melonakos-Harrison said. “What’s happening now is it’s affecting the middle class. The crisis is spreading, and pretty rapidly.”
It may be that it doesn’t have to, White said.
“Twenty percent increases are the average, but in some places rents are rising minimally,” she said. “It shows that a lot of the increases are just landlords increasing profits at the expense of tenants.”
The coalition of Cap the Rent organizations originally supported a bill, which didn’t get raised, that carved out small landlords.
“It’s not them, by and large, who are doing the huge rent hikes,” White said. “It’s large corporate landlords exploiting the pandemic and squeezing money out of people.”
But HB 6588, proposed by the state House of Representatives’ Housing Committee, doesn’t distinguish between large and small landlords, she said. The Cap the Rent campaign is working to get as many tenants as possible to testify on Tuesday, then get the bill out of committee before the March 7 deadline, White said.
After that, the goal is to ensure the bill will:
- Cap annual rent increases at 3 percent;
- Continue the cap between tenants so that when one moves out, rent protection applies to the next;
- Extend “good cause” eviction protections to all tenants, requiring landlords to have a reason for kicking tenants out;
- Strengthen enforcement measures to protect tenant rights.
“This is the first serious effort since the 1980s to push for rent control,” White said. “It was legal in Connecticut until the 1950s. Now more and more municipalities, and some states, are adopting rent stabilization because of out-of-control rents across the nation.”
In Connecticut, the Cap the Rent movement is building, Melonakos-Harrison said.
Legislators “are paying attention. They’re getting a lot of calls about this,” he said. “They may feel the pressure to do something, but I don’t know what it will be. That’s why we want people to speak at the public hearing.”
For information on how to submit testimony and view Tuesday’s hearing, visit: https://linktr.ee/rentcapct.
To view the Cap the Rent petition, visit: https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/cap-the-rent-connecticut?link_id=0&can_id=42274576b4ad4128bb0240a9e2513f19&source=email-starting-soon-at-7pm-rent-cap-launch&email_referrer=email_1785516&email_subject=starting-soon-at-7pm-cap-the-rent-launch
To contact the Cap the Rent coalition, email captherentCT@gmail.com.
To contact the Connecticut Tenants Union, visit CTtenantsunion.org.