Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie
Phyllis Johnson and U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie)

NEW HAVEN, CT—Phyllis Johnson said she tried fighting constant eviction notices from her landlord without the help of a lawyer because she simply couldn’t afford one.

“But all that got me was evicted and homeless,” Johnson, of New Haven, said Thursday at a press conference at New Haven City Hall where proponents discussed U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s recently reintroduced legislation, the Eviction Prevention Act, which would help low-income people get access to legal counsel if they are being evicted.

“I didn’t know where to turn – I was basically living out on the streets, moving around, around and around,” Johnson said, until she someone she knew implored her to seek out a lawyer at the New Haven Legal Assistance Association (NHLAA).

“I went there crying for help and that’s what I got,” said Johnson, who now said due to the help of her lawyer, she doesn’t worry about receiving future eviction notices.

Johnson was at City Hall to advocate for a bill that would allow the United States Attorney General to authorize $125 million in grants to states, counties, and cities to provide people with representation by an attorney in civil actions related to eviction if their income is lower than 125% of the federal poverty level.

According to Eviction Lab data, New Haven ranks in the top 100 cities by eviction rate, along with Waterbury, Hartford, and Bridgeport.

Across the country, just 10 percent of tenants have legal representation in evictions lawsuits, compared to an estimated 90 percent of landlords, according to DeLauro. Research has shown that providing tenants with legal representation drastically increases their ability to stay in their home, even if only temporarily so they have time to move.

“Too often in our country, poverty is criminalized,” said DeLauro. “Fighting an eviction without a lawyer is a rigged game, with far too many wrongful or disputed evictions.”

DeLauro said the issue was personal for her, as she said she was evicted from her home when she was a child.

“My parents and I were evicted when I was in grade school,” DeLauro said. “I don’t remember all the details – I was young.”

“I had to move in with my grandparents,” DeLauro said until her parents became financially solvent again.

That experience shaped DeLauro’s view on the issue, which is: “There is no shame in being evicted.”

DeLauro said: “The federal government needs to step up. Families are struggling to keep up with the rising costs of healthcare, child care, education, and housing.”

“As rents skyrocket and incomes flatline, the affordable housing crisis has become an eviction crisis,” DeLauro said. “Working people and their families deserve a safety net that can help keep them in their home, and that is exactly what the Eviction Prevention Act aims to do.”

Under the legislation, cities and states that have established a right to counsel would receive preference for additional funding. The bill would also allow the attorney general to collect evidence of eviction data, and mandate a Government Accountability Office report to Congress on the cost savings from providing representation by an attorney to renters in housing cases.

DeLauro has tried to get the legislation passed before, but it didn’t make it. This time, she said she believes it will have bipartisan support, at least in the House.

Many House-passed bills have died in the Republican-controlled Senate, however. As to the fate of this bill, DeLauro conceded: “I can’t guarantee that the Senate will do anything.”

Yonatan E. Zamir, a lawyer for New Haven Legal Assistance Association (NHLAA), handles many of the eviction cases, and was in attendance at Thursday’s press conference.

“Legal evictions are complicated,” Zamir said, who added the majority of clients the he and other lawyers at his agency helps are “predominantly women, and of those – women of color.”

“We are ready to help,” Zamir said, but he said his office is constrained by resources and badly needs the funding that DeLauro’s bill would help provide.

Zamir said he is hopeful that other efforts, besides DeLauro’s federal legislation, could be used to push for more funding.

“We’ll be asking our (state) legislators to push similar legislation,” Zamir said, though he acknowledged finding funding at the state level for new initiatives is a tough task these days.

DeLauro said she found it “embarrassing and troubling” that four of the cities with the highest eviction rates on the Eviction Lab top 100 list are in Connecticut – New Haven, Hartford, Waterbury and Bridgeport.

“So many Connecticut cities on that list,” DeLauro said. “We have a long way to go.”

New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker offered a theory on why the eviction rates might be higher in Connecticut cities than in other parts of the country.

Other states, more than Connecticut “have municipal boundaries that include neighboring suburbs,” Elicker said, noting that even though Connecticut is a small state that there are 169 individual cities and towns.