More money coming to Connecticut to help COVID-impacted renters

Photo of Ginny Monk
Dawn Parker, director of UniteCT for the state Department of Health, speaks during a news conference in front of Operation Hope in Fairfield on Aug. 30.

Dawn Parker, director of UniteCT for the state Department of Health, speaks during a news conference in front of Operation Hope in Fairfield on Aug. 30.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media file photo

Connecticut will receive millions more in rental assistance money in the coming weeks and may apply for more as the federal government reallocates funds from states and localities that were slower to dole out their dollars.

In the first round of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, Connecticut received $235.9 million. The state’s total allocated for round two is $186.6 million. So far, $88.6 million has come in, said Aaron Turner, a Department of Housing spokesman.

The additional influx of cash means the state will have more money to give to renters who were financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, the state has assisted about 17,500 households, according to data available Friday.

“I think when it comes down to it, there are a few things that are very important to somebody’s life, and being able to pay your rent is at the very top,” said Yves Galliotte, director of operations and programs at NeighborWorks New Horizons. “If you cannot pay your rent, it’s a whole new level of stress.”

NeighborWorks New Horizons is a New Haven-based organization that develops and rents affordable housing as well as providing community services. The group has been helping renters complete their rent assistance applications, Galliotte said.

Renters are eligible for the state’s program, UniteCT, if their households earn up to 80 percent of area median income and were financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The program covers up to $15,000 in rental assistance and $1,500 in electricity payments.

In Connecticut, nearly 16,000 tenants said they were not confident they could make rent next month. And just over 17,000 said they were “very” or “somewhat” likely to be evicted in the next two months, according to the latest Household Pulse Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of the Treasury published updated guidance for the rental assistance funding. The guidance said all states that hadn’t obligated at least 65 percent of their funding by Sept. 30 would need to submit a performance improvement plan and Treasury would “recapture excess funds.”

Connecticut’s program had a sluggish start. In the first months of the year, money trickled out to renters, and the program was plagued with technological problems, housing experts and renters have said.

It was difficult for tenants and landlords to navigate the early system. UniteCT has since ]resolved most of the technology issues, allowed more self-attestation in the absence of documents and revoked a requirement that landlords forgive 15 percent of rent owed in order to participate in the program.

At the end of August, only about 30 percent of the state’s first round of funding had been spent. But progress ramped up in the early fall, and the state met federal requirements to spend 65 percent of its money.

Dawn Parker, the UniteCT director, previously said the early delays occurred because the state was still trying to establish the program.

As of Friday, the state had $342.5 million in aid either paid or in progress, according to its online data dashboard.

“I’m seeing people get the money more quickly,” said Pamela Heller, a staff attorney with the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. “ … I would say that it definitely has improved.”

Still, some applicants have faced technology issues, Heller said. For example, one of her clients submitted an email address for her landlord. The landlord got a new email address a few days later, and filled out his part of the form under that address.

There wasn’t a way to fix the discrepancy between the two emails, and her client had to re-submit the application, Heller said.

UniteCT applications are only available online. So, Galliotte’s group has been helping people who aren’t tech-savvy or don’t have internet access at home, he said.

One group assists people in the initial stages — showing them how to upload documents or doing it on their behalf. Then a second group reviews the posted documents to ensure nothing else needs done before the application is sent to the state, he added.

They help at least 30 people per week.

“Once they find out they were approved, you just have to see the look of relief on their faces,” Galliotte said. “It’s actually very moving.”

Despite the increased number of people who have gotten assistance, there is still a need in Connecticut for more funding, Heller and Galliotte said.

Funds in the initial round of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program not spent or promised to renters in need are set to be taken back and given to states that have used the money. Connecticut is applying to receive some of that reallocated money, and reallocation is going to be determined based on need, according to Treasury documents.

The program was funded with $25 billion through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. The second phase, established under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, has $21.55 billion.

Nationally, the program has been slow to roll out. Housing experts have blamed the sluggish pace on understaffed programs, burdensome documentation requirements and landlords who are reluctant to participate, among other problems.

And in late August, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ban on most evictions for nonpayment of rent, the need for rent assistance became even more urgent as people who had lost income during the pandemic faced losing their homes.

The CDC instituted the ban in September 2020 to prevent COVID-19 spread by keeping people from losing their homes and having to move into congregate living at homeless shelters or in with friends and family.

Evictions, and particularly final orders to evict, have been ticking up in Connecticut since the Supreme Court’s decision. They’d been lower in the state than before the pandemic because of the federal ban and a state-level moratorium.

“As far as I know the numbers are going up steadily,” Heller said. “I believe the last I heard is that we are at pre-COVID levels.”