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Opinion: How To Protect New Haven Tenants – New Haven Independent

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(Opinion) - On April 11, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Fair Housing Act, among the last great legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement. It took the death of Dr. King a week priorand the massive unrest that followed in cities from Los Angeles to force a reluctant Congress to act.

The Fair Housing Act came 50 years after a highly contagious respiratory virus left its own imprint on American housing.

In New York City, where the 1918 influenza pandemic was especially lethal in the citys overcrowded tenements, a wave of rent strikes and other collective action led to the seminal adoption of the citys rent control system, as well as laws guaranteeing basic housing conditions like access to heat.

New York proved to be a model for the country: In the years that followed, safe conditions were an obsession of housing reformers (albeit often with horrific consequences for the minority neighborhoods bulldozed in the name of public health).

These two diseasesone of the body, the other of the body politichave erupted again. And once again, racism and a pandemic are closely linked to our housing injustice crisis.

The economic fallout of the public health lockdowns threatens a tsunami of evictions and foreclosures when the current moratoria lift. And the virus exacerbates the risks of the resulting displacement; after all, one cannot shelter-in-place without shelter.

Since Black and brown renters are more frequently evicted, the coming eviction crisis will devastate the same communities already reeling from the harshest impacts of the pandemic.

The police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others and the resulting mass protests are also closely tied to housing injustice.

The overpolicing of Black neighborhoods is only possible because of housing segregation that creates identifiably Black neighborhoods.

And the racism of the criminal law has metastasized to housing law: the only kind of evictions exempt from Gov. Ned Lamonts eviction moratorium are those for serious nuisance, a term which in practice often means minor drug infractions.

The link between the racism of American housing and American policing is particularly poignant in New Haven. Racial justice protesters in late May marched over a highway connector, which now stands where thousands of people once lived in the integrated Oak Street neighborhood, razed in one of urban renewals great tragedies.

When asked about the protests of 1968, James Baldwin said that white America ought to put pressure on his landlord, pressure on the local government, pressure wherever he can exert pressure.

It is in that spirit that a group of students and faculty within the Yale Law School Legal Services Organization recently prepared a report on preventing displacement within New Haven.

We dont pretend to have all the answers. We can only offer some suggestions, drawn from our experience with the cold injustices of the status quo.

In addition to other policies, notably rent relief, promoted by tenants advocates and the proposals in our report that address other drivers of displacement (foreclosure and insufficient creation of market rate and affordable housing units), two measures are particularly urgent.

First, New Haven should not wait for the state to act to guarantee a right to counsel in eviction proceedings. The City can and should do so before the courts reopen to an avalanche of eviction filings.

Roughly 90 percent of landlords have lawyers in eviction proceedings. But in Connecticut in 2019, over 93 percent of tenants facing eviction did not.

The few tenants who do have lawyers are far more likely to win their cases or settle on favorable termsthe truth is that the assembly-line nature of our current eviction system depends on there not being very many tenants with lawyers.

This representation crisis is a racial and gender justice issue: as Matthew Desmond has argued, in poor [B]lack neighborhoods, what incarceration is to men, eviction is to women.

New Haven, like New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and others, can help tenantsdisproportionately Black womenfight back by giving them the legal help they need to protect their homes and hold bad-actor landlords accountable.

One might object that an eviction right-to-counsel program would be too expensive. It wouldnt be free, but it would be cost-effective.

For the past two years, the Yale Law School Housing Clinic and the New Haven Legal Assistance Association have piloted a limited-scope, same-day representation program for unrepresented tenants in New Haven Housing Court.

With just a handful of lawyers and law students, we have already seen anecdotally the difference that even this modest representation can make for low-income tenants.

The costs to the City of enacting a similar, broader program could be reduced through in-kind logistical support from the Judicial Branch, the occasional award of attorneys fees when tenants lawyers identify erroneously filed or meritless cases, and other measures identified in our report.

The budgetary objection obscures the real issue: we can either pay a little to help tenants fight for their rights, or we can force the most vulnerable New Haveners to bear the catastrophic costs of mass displacement on their own. Our City pays either way. This isnt about what we can afford to doits about what we cant afford not to.

Second, the City (and the state) should ban tenant blacklisting.

New Haven has broad authority to regulate landlords and to promote fair housingauthority that other cities, like Portland, Oregon and Minneapolis, Minn. have used to address blacklisting.

Those cities have done so because when evictions are wrongfully filed or tenants win their cases, tenant-screening services mark those tenants with a Scarlet E that can make it almost impossible for them to find housing in the future.

Landlords routinely deny or upcharge apartment applicants who have been in housing court, regardless of the underlying facts or outcome. This is especially true in New Haven, where our extremely low vacancy rate and the increasing consolidation in the landlord market have slammed the door on many tenantsdisproportionately Black womenwho have previously been in housing court.

Covid-19 and the governments response to the pandemic have made blacklisting even more salient. Tenants are about to face a tsunami of eviction actions for nonpayment of rent because they lost their jobs when Connecticut and the City put the economy in deep-freeze.

The fact that someone was caught up in a once-in-a-generation economic crisis says nothing about whether they are a risky tenant, and it would be deeply unfair for the government to order working peoples workplaces closed and then fail to protect them from the long-term consequences of those orders.

Thats why the City should follow New Yorks lead and make it unlawful for a landlord to deny or upcharge an applicant because of their previous involvement in a civil housing case.

One could make the argument that this is all just now-more-than-ever-ism. Theres something to that. These changes were needed six months ago, theyre needed now, and theyll be needed until theyre enacted.

These changes alone will not be enough. It would be irresponsible to claim that the only thing we need to do to address police violence and the coronavirus is to address housing.

But it would also be irresponsible to pretend they arent connected. These crises have opened a window, just like 1918 and 1968. The greater failure, in our view, would be to let this moment pass without addressing our long-running housing injustice epidemics role in forcing our society to this breaking point.

This is the first in a series of columns addressing displacement, all based on a report by the Housing and Community and Economic Development Clinics at Yale Law School. Future entries will address the Citys role in preventing foreclosure and addressing the Citys shortage of affordable and market-rate units.

Nathan Leys is a recent graduate of Yale Law School and since 2018 has been the Student Director of the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organizations Housing ClinicEvictions Track. This op-ed does not necessarily represent the positions of Yale University or Yale Law School.

Agree with LookOut. Never met a landlord who LIKED evicting people. Generally many other measures are tried first.

As a small-scale landlord for over 25 years in New Haven, I experienced serious nuisance tenants a few times in my 1st years as a landlady, before Id learned to RIGOROUSLY screen tenants. Yes, some were minor drug infractions. Others damaged property. One brought in a vicious dog (in violation of his lease) that bit another familys child in my premises (I narrowly escaped being sued for THAT, and I did voluntarily pay medical expenses). Another got drunk enough to vomit regularly in the stairs & hallways & refused to clean up after himself. Another beat his wife & daughter so badly that police and an ambulance were called. I could give more examples. Would Atty Leys like to live down the hall from that behavior? Didnt think so - neither did my more reliable and pleasant tenants who were seeking to scrap their leases unless I got rid of the nuisances.

As it happens, Ive never had to go through a full eviction; I got all the nuisances to leave more-or-less voluntarily. But being able to START a legal eviction proceeding was KEY to easing the nuisances out. Since instituting extremely rigorous screenings, Ive never had serious nuisance tenants. What I do have is a lovely, eclectic collection of tenants of every race, creed, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc. under the sun - who seem to appreciate that my rigorous screenings mean they wont have to deal with difficult neighbors.

Yes, everybody needs a place to live. But people who are out of control of their own behavior should IMHO be guided toward group homes & other forms of supervised housing that are set up & staffed to deal with trauma exposure. THAT is where funds should go, not willy-nilly legal defense of any tenant who is being evicted, regardless of why.

Thank you, Nathan Leys, for this important, urgent op-ed piece. The scale of the crisis we are entering cannot be overstated: hundreds of thousands of new unemployment claims have been filed in CT in the last three months, a very high percentage of tenants were rent-burdened BEFORE the crisis, both the COVID and housing crises disproportionately impact Black and brown individuals & communities, and the eviction moratorium is set to end on July 1.

We need urgent, sweeping action to keep people in their homes for the duration of this pandemic. The single best way to do this is to CANCEL RENT, and use relief funds to aid small-scale & residential landlords. Those who balk at the cost of such action need to think systemically about the lives & wellbeing of ALL of our people in the state, the economic & social cost of mass evictions kicking people into the streets during a pandemic, & the reality of police forcibly removing predominantly Black & brown families from their homes.

But we need to fight on all fronts, and both arguments for legal action Leys proposes here ought to be immediately put in place. We need only look at the efficacy of Right to Counsel for our neighbors in New York City, and follow their lead here in New Haven & statewide: In 2017 New York City enacted a landmark, first-in-the-nation law establishing right to counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction. The law is being phased in zip code-by-zip code over five years, but has already dramatically increased the portion of tenants citywide with representation, from less than 5% to now approximately 30%. Its proven to be spectacularly successful: 84% of tenants receiving legal representation have been able to remain in their homes. No surprise that cities around the nation are enacting policies based on New York Citys example.

I agree with Rebecca, and Lookout. Smaller landlords can not afford the expense of tenants who dont pay their rent. The landlords still have to pay taxes, insurance, utilities, maintenance, repairs, lawncare and snow removal, etc, etc. After all those expenses, there is very little money left to save for more long term repairs and maintenance like re-roofing, painting, appliance and utility replacements, repaving, etc. I know someone who lost their 3 unit house because drug dealing tenants moved in and then all the good tenants moved out, and the eviction proceedings took so long, with appeals, that the owner couldnt pay for the taxes and the tenants trashed the house in the meanwhile, and the city foreclosed on the property for back taxes and fines for the condition that the house fell into because of the tenants actions. I know someone else who had tenants who infested their unit in a 2 family house with mice, bedbugs and roaches that had to be deep cleaned and pest control treatments multiple times before it was inhabitable again, meanwhile the other tenants moved out and the landlord couldnt hold onto new tenants due to the filthy tenants who left their unit in disgusting condition when they finally moved out and had to have all the units appliances replaced. The financial losses and money the landlord had to pay out of their personal savings separate of any income from tenants rents was not recouped when they finally sold the property. If youre on a retirement income, or youre a middle or working class property owner, you dont have the deep pockets needed to cover the losses of a bad tenant or no rent for more than a month or two. Pretty soon, only larger landlords/corporations are going to be able to afford to own residential property in New Haven and Hamden in the city, due to the rise in taxes and other expenses involved with owning property there, and only higher income tenants will be able to afford the rents needed to cover those costs.

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Opinion: How To Protect New Haven Tenants - New Haven Independent

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