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In a CT county, tenants and landlords brace for eviction tsunami

The first installment of our “Roads to Recovery” series focuses on renters and landlords in Fairfield County, Connecticut — and how, since the pandemic started, they’ve navigated a patchwork of eviction moratoriums and limited financial support. NewsHour Weekend’s Christopher Booker reports from Bridgeport, Connecticut.

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  • Michael Hill:

    The $900 billion dollar COVID-19 relief package that passed the house and senate this week remains in limbo after president trump refused to sign the bill on Tuesday.

    That bill includes a major boost for renters: $25 billion in rental assistance and the extension of a federal eviction moratorium.

    With the fate of that assistance up-in-the-air, the first installment of our "Roads to Recovery" series focuses on renters and landlords in Fairfield County, Connecticut. And how, since the pandemic started they've navigated a patchwork of eviction moratoriums and limited financial support.

    NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker begins our series in Bridgeport.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Like tens of millions of other Americans, Paul Hernandez's life was turned upside down with the arrival of COVID-19 in March. He had worked at a nearby Staples for six years, but the pandemic meant Hernandez was suddenly out of work.

  • Paul Hernandez:

    I took the unemployment and in July, they called us back. And I couldn't go back because I have a problem with my hip. I need, you know, two hip replacements and, real bad, you know, and I started suffering from depression.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Unable to go back to work, Hernandez lost his unemployment and fell several months behind on his $735 a month rent.

  • Paul Hernandez:

    I was worried about losing my place. You know, where I'm going to go? You know what? I'm going to have to go to a homeless shelter?

  • Christopher Booker:

    Nine months into the pandemic, it's a story housing advocates in Connecticut know all too well.

  • Doris Latorre:

    I mean, people just have nowhere to go. We're hearing, we're hearing horrible stories.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Doris Latorre is the deputy director of Building Neighborhoods Together, or BNT, a nonprofit that has worked to help people like Hernandez.

    She says the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has put pressure on a housing system that was already under strain. In Fairfield County, more than half of renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

  • Doris Latorre:

    People are paying way more than what they can afford. And therefore, it's so easy for them to fall behind when they have just one, you know, one month or a couple of weeks without getting paid. They just don't have the resources in the savings to be able to carry through, you know, through a crisis is just not there.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But there is some rental assistance available. In July, the state launched the Temporary Rental Housing Assistance Program, or TRHAP for short. Using $40 million of federal money — primarily from the CARES act passed in March — it provides up to $4,000 in assistance to low-income renters. Tenants have to show they were impacted by COVID-19, and, if approved, the payment goes directly to the landlord.

    But it turns out that distributing $40 million of rental relief in a pandemic is not an easy task. By September, the state had only fully processed two applicants. Seila Mosquera-Bruno is Connecticut's Housing Commissioner.

  • Seila Mosquera-Bruno:

    At the beginning was a little slow because people are going to learn the process, and trying to expedite. Now, they're basically just collecting the information and sending it to us. So the amount of contracts that we get, they have increased about 50 percent.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Is there any precedent for Connecticut housing having to build such a robust program like this in such time?

  • Seila Mosquera-Bruno:

    No, we didn't have any program, so we basically built it from scratch.

  • Christopher Booker:

    This is where Latorre and groups like BNT come in.

  • Doris Latorre:

    There are 40 that I'm calling last call, who are bringing us documents.

  • Christopher Booker:

    BNT is one of 11 nonprofits administering TRHAP. Latorre is managing her team remotely, charged with getting paperwork from tenants and landlords for nearly 800 applications, many of whom may have little more than a cell phone. Without action from Congress, Connecticut only has until December 30th to spend most of the funds.

  • Doris Latorre:

    We find a lot of people that we go, 'Hey. You know, you sent an email on this date and we haven't heard from you, are you not, you know, do not need it anymore? They go, 'Oh, my God, I desperately need the money. What are you talking about? An email? I didn't see it.' And we're getting a lot of calls from landlords. They themselves are behind on their mortgage because the tenant is not paying the rent. So, you know, they are going themselves through the process of trying to get caught up in the mortgage and really desperately need the money.

  • Christopher Booker:

    As of this week, Connecticut has processed nearly 5,900 applications, providing about $17 million of the $40 million currently available in aid. With administrative delays and limited funds for rental assistance programs, the biggest backstop for renters here are eviction moratoriums. In Connecticut there are two — one from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the second from the state, which will run through at least February 9th.

  • Rashida Rattray:

    Right now, it's our best bet to keep everyone where they are until we are at the end of this public health crisis.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Rashida Rattray is Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, a nonprofit advocacy group.

  • Rashida Rattray:

    I think it's very unfair to put a time limit on it. We tried that clearly in March. We thought two months, three months, it's December and we are still here. So realistically speaking, this moratorium needs to be extended till the end of the epidemic, till the end of the public health crisis.

  • Christopher Booker:

    What was your response to the announcement that there was a moratorium on evictions?

  • Adam Bonoff:

    I thought that it was a very, very bad situation. I really have thought that this was not the answer from the beginning.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Adam Bonoff owns 13 properties around Connecticut, including in Fairfield County. He's also on the board of the Greater Bridgeport Property Owners Association.

  • Adam Bonoff:

    We as landlords are not unsympathetic to the plight of everyone that's, you know, facing this right now. And in fact, we just really wish that government who's, like, forced this upon us. I mean, this is, this is something like why should this particular industry be stuck with all of this financial burden?

  • Christopher Booker:

    He says while property owners are still expected to pay their property taxes, utilities, and mortgages, some renters are exploiting the moratorium.

  • Adam Bonoff:

    There are some people out there that are tenants that are taking advantage of this and not worrying about that. They may owe this. They may owe the landlord down the road. They'll take the chance and roll the dice and, you know, maybe try to skip out or or be able to avoid payment ever.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Housing advocate Rashida Rattray points out that tenants in Connecticut are still being evicted. Since March, more than 2,500 eviction cases have been filed, including against a woman in Fairfield County who had recently tested positive for COVID-19.

    The CDC moratorium can only be used as a defense after a landlord has started an eviction in court. And the state's moratorium has several exceptions, including if a tenant is six months or more behind on rent or if a landlord wants to use the house as their primary dwelling, which is what the owner here wanted to do. But there is at least one point of agreement between tenant advocates like Rattray and landlords like Adam Bonoff: Rental assistance programs like TRHAP are not closing the gap.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Has the TRHAP program been enough?

  • Rashida Rattray:

    Honestly, no. And there have been quite a few systemic issues with the program from its genesis. With the initial rollout of the program, the document process was cumbersome. There was not much outreach with regards to the program, so a lot of people didn't know it existed.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Is the TRHAP program that Connecticut has offered. Is that enough?

  • Adam Bonoff:

    I think absolutely not. It's a drop in the bucket compared to the losses that the industry has had to take.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Landlords in Connecticut are not alone – without federal assistance economists with Moody's Analytics estimate that by mid-January renters across the country will be behind by about $70 billion. And the losses go well beyond market-rate buildings, the very groups advocating for housing are also feeling the pain

  • Noah Gotbaum:

    Normally we have five to eight percent of our tenants overall who are delinquent or late on rent in arrearages. It's five times that now.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Noah Gotbaum is the executive director of BNT in Bridgeport. In addition to being one of the nonprofits administering TRHAP, it's also an affordable housing developer. In all, BNT has about 400 units of affordable housing, and Gotbaum says organizations like his could go bankrupt without the financial assistance from programs like TRHAP.

  • Noah Gotbaum:

    If we lose 15 or 20 percent of our rents, which is what's happening now, we can't keep lights on. We can't provide utilities. We can't do the cleaning. We can't repair the holes in the roofs. We can't provide the housing that we provide. So it's a, it's a real issue.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Back in Bridgeport, Paul Hernandez is safe for at least a few more months. He applied for TRHAP and the program paid his landlord $4,000, enough to cover the back rent he owed, and most of his total for January and February. After that, the 57-year-old is counting on receiving disability from Social Security Insurance, or SSI. He applied this fall after his doctor told him that given the hip condition and issues with his heart, he should no longer work.

  • Paul Hernandez:

    Right now I'm on borrowed time, you know, I mean, the program helped me for a bit, but…

  • Christopher Booker:

    What are you going to do if the SSI does not come through?

  • Paul Hernandez:

    I mean. I don't really know, you know, I'll cross that bridge when I get there.

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