Housing shortages and higher rents. Child care workers struggling to afford health care. Two charter schools with funding still in limbo. Flooding and air pollution in urban centers.
These were several issues voiced during two forums organized by the state’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus in advance of the legislative session, which begins Feb. 7.
At the first forum on Jan. 9, members of the public spoke for five hours on a wide range of issues that impacted their daily working lives. During the second forum on Tuesday, state government officials, nonprofits and community groups spoke.
The lack of affordable housing was a central issue, but the proposals for fixing the problem were disparate.
Department of Housing Commissioner Seila Mosquera-Bruno listed out programs that the state was required to provide for people with rental assistance — an eviction prevention program, moving assistance, and vouchers for families with young or school-age children. She said her department was also working with private developers to create more housing for middle-income residents and hoped to have 2,000 new units by next year.
But State Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, warned that the majority of the people she represented couldn’t afford what qualified as affordable housing by the state.
“The priority really should be the people that are experiencing gentrification in districts such as mine, where they are literally being forced out because they can’t afford what we’re calling ‘affordable housing,’” she said.
Mosquera-Bruno said Connecticut is currently building 5,000 units that would be available to people making between 30 and 80 percent of the area median income — for families of four that’s between $18,000 and $60,000 per year.
Sean Ghio, policy director for the Partnership for Strong Communities, asked legislators to increase the allocation for the state’s Rental Assistance Program, noting that rents had increased by an average of 20 percent statewide, and that the program would need an additional $8 million just to offer the same number of vouchers currently being provided to low-income residents.
Ghio said about 119,000 people living in Connecticut spend more than half of their income on housing, and that the majority of those were Black and Latino. He called for additional rental assistance until the state could build more affordable housing.
Luke Harrison, vice president and organizer of the Connecticut Tenants Union, told legislators the group’s priority this session was to have just-cause eviction protection expanded to include all renters. Currently, tenants can be asked to leave once their lease ends, at the landlord’s discretion.
“As a result of no-fault evictions, the life of that family is thrown into chaos, the community is destabilized, and the level of homelessness in our state continues to grow,” Harrison said, adding that the problem primarily stemmed from large corporations buying apartment buildings.
At the public forum, Ben Ryan, a renter in the East Rock area of New Haven, said his apartment building had been purchased by a large corporation, and that he hasn’t had electricity since September. He said he took time off work to wait for a repairman that never showed, and when a repairman finally arrived, the person left exposed wires in his bathroom.
“To this day, we live in constant fear of electrical fire killing our dog or upstairs neighbors when we aren’t home,” Ryan said. “We became afraid of retaliation in the form of a lapse-of-time eviction as we were about a month away from having to renew our lease.”
As a disabled renter, Ryan said he’s protected under state law from being evicted when his lease expires, but believes all renters should have that protection.
Charter school debate
Also a hot topic at the forum was the long-debated Danbury Charter School, which was approved by the State Board of Education in 2018 but has yet to receive funding from the state legislature.
Danbury residents in favor of the charter school pointed to rapid student population growth and the need for more options and better education for area students.
“This school was envisioned as a beacon of educational excellence. Yet this program is obstructed by a lack of necessary funds. The delay in securing funds for the Danbury Charter School not only impacts its progress, but also limits the educational choices available to our families. In times where our communities strive for diversified educational pathways, this obstruction is demoralizing,” resident Maria Matos said.
Matos said Danbury High School teachers can’t support the growing number of students. She also acknowledged that Danbury recently opened a Career Academy, but didn’t see why the two schools couldn’t exist simultaneously.
But charter school opponents expressed fear that it would help a small number of students in the city while leaving the remaining students with fewer resources. They said the solution should be putting more money into Danbury’s traditional public schools.
“When the public schools have the proper resources, I believe our children have great opportunities to be successful in school and life,” said Elvis Novas, a parent. “I hear from some people that the charter school is the answer. It is not. I believe the solution is to bring more funds to our district to help support students. to improve student achievement, to recruit and retain high quality teachers.”
Several members of the caucus, including State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, State Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-Waterbury, and State Rep. Geraldo Reyes, D-Waterbury, said they supported the charter school.
Anita Ford Saunders, head of the Middletown NAACP and a board member for Capital Preparatory Middletown, addressed the lack of funding for the charter school approved for Middletown.
“Capital Prep had the highest score of all the charter school applicants. We were unanimously approved by the Connecticut State Board of Education. We had six community meetings when we only were required to have one. The planning committee did everything we were supposed to do, and then some. Yet, we were even denied entry to a room where critical decisions were being made. We, you and I, people of color, Black and Latino, have had these experiences countless times,” she said.
A lack of minority teachers, the high cost of becoming an educator in Connecticut, and new state-approved reading programs were also discussed.
Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker said 19,500, or 54 percent, of third-graders were unable to read at grade level. That figure included more than 3,200 Black students, more than 8,000 Latino students and 6,000 white students, she said. More than half are in the state’s lowest performing districts.
A law requiring local school districts to adopt the state’s new “evidence-based” reading programs has received pushback from several high-performing districts whose curricula have been rejected by the state, despite their students consistently earning high scores on state tests.
“Learning to read is a civil rights issue,” State Sen. Patricia Billie Miller, D-Stamford, chair of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said at the forum. “We do have the responsibility as the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus to make sure that children in this state can read. Frederick Douglass said that when you can read, you are forever free.”
Child care funding
Several early childhood educators also asked caucus members for help obtaining affordable and quality health insurance.
One Waterbury educator said she had to pay $3,000 after suffering a pulmonary embolism, leaving her in debt. Another said her medical debt has continued to rise after being diagnosed with breast cancer during a routine doctor’s appointment and getting surgery.
“As an early childhood educator, my dedication to the development of children is undeniable. However, we confront challenges, such as not having accessible health insurance, for ourselves, the providers,” said Iris Velazquez, another child care provider. “Many of us work second and third shifts to get to the end of the month in order to pay all of our expenses, including health insurance that is very costly for us.”
Velazquez, who cares for children from nine families, said two of her families aren’t eligible for Care4Kids, the state child care subsidy program for low-income families. This means parents have to work more, she said, and that it’s “almost impossible” for them to pay her each month.
This past year, Gov. Ned Lamont convened a Blue Ribbon Panel on Childcare to brainstorm ways to better support the early child care workforce. The panel’s recommendation included an investment of $600 million more into early child care, which would more than double the number of families eligible for Care4Kids and increase subsidies so parents could pay less.
Merrill Gay, director of the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance and a member of the panel, said the industry was in crisis — there were 4,000 staffing vacancies, leaving many classrooms closed and parents unable to find child care.
“There’s a reason that there are 4,000 vacancies in early care. You can make more money doing almost any other job,” Gay said.
But he feared the extra $600 million wouldn’t be enough.
“We don’t think that the plan goes far enough to address the lack of care in child care deserts. We don’t think it will make care affordable for all the families who are struggling to pay for care. And, most directly, it won’t raise wages for the 80 percent of early educators who work outside of the state funded system,” he said. “I don’t need to remind you that those staff are disproportionately women of color.”
Flooding and trash incineration are two other challenges disproportionately affecting communities with people of color, according to Sharon Lewis, director of the Connecticut Equity and Environmental Justice Advisory Council.
“The impacts of climate change, combined with inadequate urban planning and aging infrastructure have led to devastating floods and sewage backups in the homes of low-income communities of color,” Lewis told the caucus.
Lewis asked the caucus to promote more resilient infrastructure and to work on flood control.
At the public hearing, Hartford resident Bridget Prince recounted the sewage overflows that have affected the city’s North End over the past year. While Lamont announced $175 million for infrastructure repairs and compensation, Prince said the victims weren’t being compensated as she felt they should be.
“You’ve got 3,000 people fighting over $5 million, and they’ve excluded the business owners,” she said.
Prince said the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus didn’t offer enough support for the cleanup. She also pointed to a state law requiring insurers to cover suburban homeowners with crumbling foundations, but that the people affected by the sewage spill weren’t getting the necessary help.
Reyes and Nolan said they would follow up on the situation.
Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes added that the department worked with Hartford and the Metropolitan District Commission to approve the use of money from the Clean Water Fund to upgrade the sewage system.
Lewis also addressed pollution coming regional trash incinerators, saying historic redlining by the federal government had forced Black people to live in areas where these facilities are located.
She said one major incinerator located in Bridgeport burned not only trash, but also illegal drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine.
“The infrastructure around these communities is destroyed. It’s ugly. These trucks who bring trash from other towns tend to drop trash on the way. There’s heavy idling from these trucks, where the tailpipe emissions from the diesel exhaust also contribute to poor health outcomes for the people who live nearby,” Lewis said.
Miller said the urban centers had been forgotten when it came to environmental justice.
“It’s really too bad that we’re in reactive mode rather than proactive mode,” she said.