Capping annual rent increases in Connecticut appears unlikely as costs mount

Photo of Alexander Soule
Governor Ned Lamont addresses a full house, the combined House and Senate, during the opening day of the 2022 legislative session at the Capitol in Hartford, Conn. on Wednesday, February 9, 2022.

Governor Ned Lamont addresses a full house, the combined House and Senate, during the opening day of the 2022 legislative session at the Capitol in Hartford, Conn. on Wednesday, February 9, 2022.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media

As tenants across Connecticut eye upcoming lease expirations with trepidation, Democratic lawmakers appear unlikely to make a concerted push to create any statewide law to cap annual rent increases — despite statewide measures that have been enacted in Oregon and California.

Rep. David Michel, D-Stamford, said this month he plans to reintroduce the idea of statewide rent stabilization in the 2023 session of the Connecticut General Assembly. But apartment owners are opposed on grounds they are being hit with skyrocketing costs themselves for services, utilities and labor among other expenses.

With some renters convinced their landlords are profiteering during the COVID-19 pandemic, it remains a hot-button issue heading into the fall elections, as inflation dominates political debate and housing costs chew up 30 percent or more of many household budgets.

About 63 percent of Connecticut residents own their abodes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with the large majority of the rest paying rent. The Census estimated Connecticut’s rental vacancy rate at 2.1 percent as of the second quarter, the lowest rate in the United States. The Stamford-New Haven corridor had a vacancy rate below 1.5 percent, trailing only a few metropolitan regions for the lowest in the nation.

The Connecticut General Assembly did not vote last session on bills that would have funded studies of how rent control could be enacted statewide. The legislature passed one bill that requires cities with at least 25,000 residents to have fair rent commissions vested with the power to adjust rents if they find any single landlord is pursuing abusive practices in setting rates.

But those commissions do not have the authority to compel landlords to offer leases to existing tenants, allowing them to seek new tenants at whatever rent they are willing to pay in an inflationary market.

Existing fair rent commissions in Connecticut have seen only a smattering of cases this year, including the Norwalk Fair Rent Commission which as of August had four open cases before it in which tenants complained of rent hikes ranging from 8 percent to nearly 40 percent, but with a few withdrawn before any action by the commission after the parties reached an agreement.

“We’re doing a lot of telephone calls with a lot of tenants, about a lot of landlord-tenant issues — not necessarily as many about rent issues,” said Russell Liskov, a Bridgeport attorney who provides mediation services for the Norwalk Fair Rent Commission, speaking in early August during a commission meeting. “We’re helping them out, and everyone’s walking away happy at least that they are getting the proper information that allows them to move on with their life.”

Under Oregon’s law, which was the first statewide mandate in the nation when it passed in 2019, landlords cannot exceed a 7 percentage increase in rent each year plus extra to account for inflation. This year’s increase is capped at 9.9 percent. The law exempts buildings constructed within the most recent, 15-year window.

Of the 100 largest metropolitan regions tracked by Zumper, New York City has seen the largest annual increase in median rents. The price of the median, one-bedroom apartment in New York City shot up 41 percent from July 2021 to $3,780. Only 30 metro areas in the Zumper rent study saw increases of 10 percent or less in median rents.

In July, Kingston became the first municipality in Upstate New York to invoke rent controls under an expanded Emergency Tenant Protection Act, which the New York State Assembly passed in 2019 to extend rent protection beyond the New York City region. To opt in, municipalities must have vacancy rates below 5 percent, and exemptions are in place for buildings constructed since 1974, or older buildings with fewer than six apartments.

This year, New York weighed a new bill that would have allowed tenants statewide to fight “unreasonable” increases of one-and-a-half times the rate of inflation on a regional basis.

Legislatures in Rhode Island, Maryland, South Carolina, Illinois, Washington and Hawaii all considered broad restrictions on rent increases this year, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council.

And in Boston, a committee formed by the city’s mayor has been holding public hearings with the goal of drafting model legislation for the Massachusetts Legislature to consider next year.

Includes prior reporting by Daniel Figueroa IV and Roger Hannigan Gilson.

Alex.Soule@scni.com; 203-842-2545; @casoulman