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May 8, 2024

CT eviction reform bill won’t be taken up, lawmakers say

GINNY MONK / CT MIRROR Make the Road member Imelda Barajas talks about her experience as a renter at a Feb. 15 press conference in Hartford. Tenants' rights advocates gathered to show support for eviction reform.

Lawmakers said Tuesday they don’t have the votes to pass a contentious eviction reform bill that drew hours of testimony, hundreds of public comments and a bevy of support from housing advocates throughout the legislative session.

Time is running short in the legislative session, which closes when the clock strikes midnight Wednesday evening. The plan had been to fold Senate Bill 143, which would extend protections against evictions when leases end to most Connecticut renters, into the Senate Democrats’ housing priority bill.

But that bill won’t be taken up, said Housing Committee co-chair Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport.

“I’m very disturbed that we’ve forgotten or we’re allowing one person’s email to dictate what we do,” Moore said, referring to emails sent to lawmakers from those opposed to the bill.

The measure is among many that will likely die over the next couple of days. It can be politically difficult to get contentious bills passed during a short legislative session and in an election year.

The evictions bill had strong opposition from landlord groups who have formed a political action committee and plan to focus efforts on the state House in the coming election.

Moore said she believes lawmakers listened to the voices of landlord groups rather than the hours of testimony from tenants who said they’d been harmed by lapse-of-time evictions. “I’m not seeing the balance,” she said.

Connecticut has existing protections against evictions when leases run out for senior citizens and people with disabilities. The measure would have expanded those protections to include renters who live in larger apartment complexes, with more than five units.

There were more than 20,600 evictions filed in Connecticut in 2023, and about 11% of those were lapse-of-time evictions, meaning the lease term was up. That makes up over 2,000 evictions annually.

Eviction has been tied to a wide range of negative outcomes for tenants, including educational gaps for children, community disruption, loss of transportation, negative mental health outcomes and health problems.

“When we’re talking about eviction, we’re talking about really life-altering experiences that people and families and children are going through and whole communities are going through,” tenant organizer Luke Melankos-Harrison said.

Eviction also disproportionately impacts people of color and women, particularly Black women.

The bill saw fierce opposition from landlord groups who launched text campaigns and held fundraisers for a Property Owners Defense League super political action committee. A super PAC can take unlimited contributions to spend on political activity.

Bob DeCosmo, treasurer of the PAC, said they formed a few years ago but weren’t actively fundraising until this legislative session. They’re focused on the upcoming state House elections in the next few months, he said.

“The analogy is if you’re going to school and the bully is taking your lunch money every day, you have to fight back eventually,” DeCosmo said.

He added that the PAC plans to be “very aggressive,” in upcoming elections.

“The assault at the Capitol has been relentless, and it’s time to engage the good tenants on Election Day,” he said.

John Souza, a Hartford area landlord and president of the Connecticut Coalition of Property Owners, was among those who spoke at a recent fundraiser for the PAC.

“Every year, they’re trying harder and harder to take our rights away in the name of quote, unquote helping people,” Souza said in a Tuesday interview.

Landlords told lawmakers during public testimony that they use lapse-of-time evictions to oust tenants who are causing problems at a complex. Some have said they use them to evict tenants when they want to raise the rent.

Tenants say that the lapse-of-time evictions have been used on entire complexes or buildings, particularly when new ownership wants to remodel and increase rents. They also say it’s been used as retaliation against tenants who argue for better conditions, complain about rent increases, or help organize tenant unions.

“I think it became very clear to us not only this session but last session that the default orientation of many and perhaps most in the legislature is towards the interests of the few who own the property,” Melonakos-Harrison said. “For the many who don’t own property but are just trying to have a stable place to live, it’s an incredibly uphill battle to get those concerns heard.”

It’s a blow for housing advocates who pushed last session for caps to annual rent increases. The bill had support from a broad spectrum of housing policy groups across the state.

“We’re just perpetuating and feeding into homelessness,” Moore said.

House Majority Leader Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said he counted votes over the weekend and learned the measure would fall short. Many lawmakers are concerned about the rights of landlords, he said, and feel that with the passage of a tenants rights bill last session and financial pressures from the COVID-19 pandemic, the eviction reform would be too much of a burden.

That said, the reasons for no votes ranged, he added.

“I think both sides can be heard,” he said. The legislature may look at the idea again next year, he said.

Housing Committee ranking member Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, said he was concerned that the bill would dissuade landlords from keeping their rental units online for use.

“I think it’s one of the worst bills proposed this session,” Sampson said.

For measures like the eviction bill that the minority party opposes, Sampson said they will argue against it. In the last days of session, it’s fairly commonplace for Republicans to debate bills longer, leaving less time for Democrats to push through other legislation.

Souza said the legislature has been increasingly trying to “chip away” at property owners’ rights and should leave it up to landlords and tenants to negotiate leases.

“There are landlords who take over a building who ask people to move because they need to remodel,” Souza said. “You can say ‘that’s mean’ and maybe it is but why would they buy it?

“Money makes it work for everybody.”

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