Connecticut renters facing eviction can get free legal services in 2022

A program to provide legal representation for low-income Connecticut renters is set to start in January.

A program to provide legal representation for low-income Connecticut renters is set to start in January.

Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticut Media

The first phase of a program that provides legal representation for low-income renters facing eviction is set to start in January, officials said.

Connecticut’s right to counsel law, passed in June, establishes a program that gives tenants who earn up to 80 percent of area median income access to free legal counsel in eviction proceedings.

The program is scheduled to begin in January in areas of the state with the highest rates of evictions, said Natalie Wagner, executive director of the Connecticut Bar Foundation. The foundation is the agency tasked with administering the program, Wagner said during a session at the Connecticut Affordable Housing Conference on Monday.

Connecticut was the third state to pass a right to counsel law for tenants. The first two were Washington and Maryland, which is also working on launching its program.

And during evictions in Connecticut, about 80 percent of landlords hire an attorney in the case while less than 7 percent of tenants have representation, said panelist Cecil Thomas, a staff attorney at Greater Hartford Legal Aid.

“Right to counsel is the great equalizer,” said Justin Farmer, a panelist and a Hamden city council member.

The first two years of the program are funded with $20 million in federal COVID-19 relief money, presenters said during a conference on affordable housing in Connecticut.

During the economic downfalls caused by the pandemic, millions nationwide fell behind on rent, and experts predicted a wave of evictions. Many states’ rental assistance programs have been slow to get money to those in need.

After a slow start, Connecticut’s program, UniteCT, has picked up its pace of distribution. The state has distributed $139.9 million of its total two-part allocation of $370.9 million from the federal government for rental and utility assistance.

The pandemic has highlighted the stakes of housing insecurity for many families, said panelist Sophie House, director of law and policy at the Housing Solutions Lab at New York University.

“Over both the short and the long term, evictions are harmful for individuals, for families and for communities,” House said, citing health outcomes and difficulty finding housing in the future after a filed eviction.

The three-day conference was organized by the Partnership for Strong Communities.

People of color and women are disproportionately affected by eviction, and have evictions filed against them at higher rates than their white, male counterparts, House said.

Black and Latino renters are more than twice as likely to face evictions than white renters. Women are about 1.4 times more likely than men to face eviction, according to information presented at the conference.

Addressing these inequalities was one of the reasons organizers decided to work on a right to counsel bill, said Luke Melonakos-Harrison, a Connecticut Right to Counsel Coalition and Central Connecticut Democratic Socialists of America member.

It’s part of a larger push to empower tenants to “fight for basic respect and dignity,” Melonakos-Harrison added.

In the next steps for the right to counsel program, the Connecticut Bar Foundation is partnering with nonprofit legal service groups who will provide representation for tenants. Several of those groups are hiring attorneys to help with the program.

Stout Risuius Ross LLC will also study the program’s impact during the first two years.

As of Oct. 1, all landlords and housing managers are required to attach a document alerting tenants to the resources available during eviction to notices to quit, eviction court summons and government subsidy termination notices.

The document is available in English and Spanish. More information about right to counsel will be available online.

Gov. Ned Lamont also provided an opening statement to the conference on the importance of affordable housing for business, personal opportunity and stability and community development.

“It’s not just a roof over your head, it’s a home,” Lamont said. “It gives people an opportunity, a start in life.”

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