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September 23, 2020

Six months into pandemic, just two families have received aid from state’s rental assistance program

Photo | CT Mirror/CLOE POISSON A “For Rent” sign hangs in front of a house in Hartford’s North End.

Only two families have received aid in the five months since state officials established a program to help those struggling to pay rent during the pandemic, leaving a backlog of nearly 7,400 applications and growing frustration about the slow pace of the approval process.

Nearly 30,000 people have applied for the program, a number that has been whittled down to 7,375 through the pre-approval process. But with too-few housing counselors to handle the thousands of applications and a burdensome list of documents required for each case, little progress has been made getting people their money.

On Tuesday evening, a spokesman for Gov. Ned Lamont said 40 additional families will receive aid by the end of this week.

This snail’s pace is upsetting legislators and housing advocates, who are disappointed the Connecticut Department of Housing devised a program with so much red tape.

“This backlog is causing families to be harmed,” said state Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, the co-chairman of the legislature’s Housing Committee. “There is a supply and demand inequality that is going on. If there is a surge of applications, then we need to put more personnel and resources into helping these families. We should take care of the vulnerable first, and I am not seeing that from the administration.”

Applicants are being asked to provide an unreasonable amount of documentation, Anwar said, partly to guard against fraud and partly to prevent the state from spending more than the $20 million it has allocated for the program. Although 7,400 people were pre-approved for the program, the state only has enough funding to provide $4,000 to roughly 5,000 households.

So far, 1,700 families have been referred to housing counselors to process their applications and another 1,100 referrals are expected to happen later this week. The remaining applications are put into a lottery to determine who will get a counselor next.

Erin Kemple, executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, a civil rights organization whose attorneys represent those struggling with housing insecurity, said she is “appalled” by how the program is operating.

To receive help, applicants must provide documentation that verifies their 2019 income, as well as income during May, June, July this year that shows a reduction of pay. They also must have documentation from a landlord that specified how much rent is unpaid, and a promise that $4,000 will erase any outstanding debt. Getting all of this paperwork has proven challenging since some landlords are either not interested in participating in the program or are non-responsive.

Kemple said while the state’s rental assistance program slowly shells out aid, her organization is receiving calls from those who are being pressured by their landlords to move out because they are behind on their rent. There are state and federal eviction protections in place, but Kemple said that hasn’t stopped some landlords from negotiating with tenants to leave.

“They want their rent and they won’t accept that their tenant is waiting to hear if they will get rental assistance from the state,” said Kemple. “I am appalled with this program.”

It’s not quite clear just how many people need aid.

People seeking to apply for the aid initially faced a busy signal or a long wait to get through, and the program stopped taking applications Aug. 28, just six weeks after opening.

A survey of landlords in late May conducted by the governor’s office concluded that, without intervention, state eviction rates were likely to jump from 4% in the typical year to 7% this year.

Twenty percent of tenants in Connecticut are behind on rent, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Sept. 9. Women, Black and Hispanic people, and those living in the state’s largest cities are disproportionately affected by this economic downturn and the resulting housing crisis. Renters typically earn less than half that of homeowners.

Anwar and eight other Democratic state senators wrote Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, on Friday to plead that he bolster this program. They also pointed pointed out several nearby states that have spent considerably more on rental assistance programs than Connecticut.

“This program has been a lifeline for tenants struggling to pay rent and for landlords struggling to make mortgage payments. There is an active need for further funding for rental assistance and landlord support,” the group wrote. “The urgency with which our residents need these programs is clear; the backlog that resulted from the number of applications to [the program] required DOH to pause intake since Friday, August 28th. ”

Lamont’s spokesman, Max Reiss, said the administration is working to speed up the process and intends to put more money into the program so it can reopen the hotline.

“The State is committed to reopening the program; however, the Department of Housing [is] currently dealing with the backlog of requests, and putting systems in place to hopefully streamline and simplify the process when the program reopens.  We do not yet have a firm date,” said Reiss. “The State is prepared to commit additional resources to the program, and a determination is being made between [the governor’s budget office] and DOH as to what that figure will be.”

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