Evictions could top pre-COVID numbers, hit vulnerable communities hardest

Victor and Amilbia and their five children were evicted from their home in Norwalk after falling behind on rent during the pandemic. They have been staying together at a hotel with help from a local shelter. (Tony Spinelli/ Connecticut Public)

Victor and Amilbia came to this country, like many other migrants, to find better opportunities for themselves and their future family. So never in their wildest dreams did they think their American dream would include facing eviction.

The family of seven, who asked that only their first names be used because the parents are undocumented, was forced to leave their home of three years behind last month. They landed at a local hotel in Norwalk, as it was their only option to keep a roof over their head.

The eviction came shortly after the state’s emergency rental assistance program, UniteCT, stopped taking new applications. Evictions in Connecticut have resumed recently after months of moratoriums and executive orders provided tenants with some protections.

With about two weeks still left in March, more than 1,500 evictions have been filed this month. That’s the highest number of monthly filings since January 2020 — before the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic — according to the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. Advocates expect the number to continue to increase, leaving more families like Victor’s in the same situation as they’re forced out of their homes.

Sitting in the dimly lit hotel room surrounded by his children, Victor thought back to the day they were evicted. He and Amilbia have five children all born in the U.S. Their youngest is just 3 months old.

“That was a horrible day, and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody,” Victor said in Spanish.

He said his family fell behind on rent last spring. At the time, he was having health issues while his wife was pregnant — both were unable to work as much as they were used to. Victor said he and his wife were always very hard workers, but like many others during the pandemic, they fell on hard times.

They were not eligible for stimulus checks due to their legal status and could not apply for unemployment. Instead, they relied on the state’s emergency rental assistance in hopes of getting some relief, but it took months before it cleared. Victor said many organizations that helped tenants apply to UniteCT turned them away, unsure if they were eligible due to their legal status. Until one caseworker finally helped them.

Toys belonging to Victor and Amilbia’s children at the foot of the bed in the hotel room where the family of seven have been staying since they were evicted from their Norwalk home. (Tony Spinelli /Connecticut Public)

When the funds came, Victor said that gave them some relief, but only momentarily. The family fell behind on rent shortly after and tried to apply for another batch of funds. But by then, their landlord had other plans: A state marshal showed up at their doorstep last month to evict them.

“We were told that if our landlord took the money, we wouldn’t be evicted so we were very confused,” Victor said.

He said the eviction was a shock. Victor said he didn’t receive any notice about the case prior to the decision. According to the state’s judicial website, his case went to default, or judgment in favor of the landlord because the tenant failed to show. So when it was time to leave, the family had nothing ready and was able to grab only essentials.

But despite all their belongings staying behind, what worried him the most about not having a home was what could happen to his kids.

“I would close my eyes and see someone taking my kids away, and it’s not something I could ever live with. My body would tremble just thinking about that because I can defend them from a thief but not the law,” he said.

With just $30 in his pocket, Victor said he had no idea what was ahead and reached out to friends and community members.

He said they told him to call 2-1-1, the state’s help line connecting residents to local services. The help line connects people at risk of homelessness to the closest Coordinated Access Network or CAN. The CAN service assesses an individual’s situation and refers them to community resources. In Victor’s case, it was a local shelter in Norwalk. The shelter booked the family for a temporary stay at the hotel free of charge.

Hotels are often used by shelters when occupancy is full. That option especially expanded during the pandemic as congregate settings, like shelters, tried to minimize the spread of the virus.

Amilbia is interviewed on Feb. 25 at the hotel in Norwalk where her family has been staying. (Tony Spinelli/ Connecticut Public)

“Having the hotel is great. And the experience has not only been good for me, but for clients,” said Yolanda Mateo, the director of client services at Open Doors Shelter in Norwalk.

“They don’t feel like homeless people in the hotel, they kind of just feel like another guest staying at the hotel,” she said.

The shelter has only around 20 beds right now because of COVID, but over 50 units of affordable housing and 10 rooms are available through the hotel program. Mateo said she credits the state for making efforts to end homelessness even prior to the pandemic. Since 2012 the number of Connecticut residents using the shelter system has decreased by more than half, but Mateo said it’s unknown what’s to come.

In the first week of March of 2020, 315 families were experiencing homelessness in Connecticut. And in the first week of March 2022, there were 473 families, according to data released weekly from the state Department of Housing.

Open Doors Shelter is feeling that increase. Prior to the pandemic, the shelter helped about 30 families a year. Today, it’s nearly 50. And without help from UniteCT for low- to middle-income families, Mateo said she’s worried.

As Mateo scrolls through apartment listings daily, she’s shocked by the skyrocketing rent prices.

“A one-bedroom apartment in South Norwalk is $1,920. And that’s like a standard, no luxury, utilities not included, one bedroom,” she said. “I don’t know many people who can afford $2,000 a month for a one-bedroom.”

And the market is even more of a challenge for large families. She said Victor’s family of seven needs at least a three-bedroom. A family would need an annual income of around $100,000 to be able to afford that, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s the equivalent of more than 150 hours a week at a minimum wage job in the state.

Average rents in Connecticut have increased by more than 15% year over year from $1,544 to $1,783 a month, according to Connecticut Comptroller Natalie Braswell’s March report. Meanwhile, more than 50% of renters are cost-burdened, or pay more than 30% of their income on housing costs.

“We know the reality in Connecticut is that rents are unaffordable,” said Erin Kemple, the executive director at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center in Hartford.

The center tracks eviction filings.

“We are hearing from people in increasing numbers that the number of people who are able to stay in their units is going down. There are evictions because people can’t afford to pay the rent,” Kemple said. “I think it’s possible that we will be seeing an increase in the number of nonpayment cases. And I do believe that’s a good reason to restart the UniteCT program.”

UniteCT, the state’s rental assistance program, launched in March 2021 and has helped more than 36,000 households across the state, according to the program’s website. Applying to the program was a condition for landlords looking to file an eviction up until Feb. 15 – the same day Gov. Ned Lamont’s emergency powers lapsed. Now the program is closed, but advocates and legislators want to see it open up again.

“We are starting to see people’s furniture on the curbside,” state Rep. Geraldo Reyes, the chair for the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said at a news conference earlier this month.

“The courts are open, and the program is closed. People who need the program are just now finding out. Any one of my colleagues can tell you right now, I am in the 75th District in Waterbury and I have seen three piles of furniture on the corner,” he said. “There is a problem.”

He called on the state to fund the program with an additional $250 million.

The Connecticut Fair Housing Center agrees with funneling more money into the program, especially as evictions hit vulnerable communities the hardest, Kemple said.

Victor and Amilbia and their five children were evicted from their home in Norwalk after falling behind on rent during the pandemic. They have been staying together at a hotel with help from a local shelter. (Tony Spinelli /Connecticut Public)

A new report by the Connecticut Fair Housing Center and CT Data Collaborative found that between 2017 and 2021, Black and Latino renters had cases filed against them at higher rates than white renters. Black renters were three times more likely than white renters to have an eviction filed against them, and for Latino renters it was two times more likely. While it’s unknown how that affects undocumented immigrants, Kemple said tenants who are undocumented, like Victor, have a harder time staying in their units.

“Tenants who are undocumented have a much harder time accessing assistance and being able to get the help they need because they’re not eligible,” Kemple said. “In addition, a lot of tenants are just afraid to apply if they don’t have the proper documentation because they don’t want someone to realize they’re in the country without proper documentation and taking action against them.”

And that’s in addition to a host of other challenges undocumented tenants face when navigating housing in the U.S., like discrimination.

As for Victor, he said he’s not afraid to ask for help.

“If I wouldn’t have gone through this situation, I wouldn’t have known about all the help. I want people to see that there are a lot of people that can help,” Victor said.

Shortly after landing at the hotel, Victor got a job at a local deli as a chef thanks to his willingness to ask for a hand.

“The only thing I want is to get my kids ahead and get them out of this situation,” Victor said. “I am really tired. All I want is a chance to work hard. I want to give my kids an apartment, a table full of food and happiness.”

Listen to the audio version of this story at CTPublic.org.