(Niroworld via Shutterstock) Credit: Niroworld via Shutterstock

While the General Assembly voted to extend Governor Ned Lamont’s executive emergency powers through February – thereby extending certain funding opportunities afforded tenants facing eviction during the COVID-19 pandemic – legal experts are preparing to provide more help for tenants facing eviction after those protections expire.

Sometime around the start of the new year, tenants will be able to access Connecticut’s “Right to Counsel” program, which allows those who meet income qualifications, access to free legal representation in eviction proceedings. 

There are an average of 21,000 evictions filed in Connecticut courts annually, with less than 10% of tenants having representation in those matters, according to the Connecticut Bar Foundation, which will administer the program and is currently seeking a director to run it. 

The General Assembly passed PA 12-34 this year, making Connecticut one of only three states to have a statewide program, said Natalie Wagner, executive director of the Connecticut Bar Foundation. Some local governments – including New York City – have had similar programs in place before.

The hope is that it will help tenants navigate the judicial process, which can be difficult, and find some stability in their housing situation, Wagner said. 

“This is a free advocate for you through the legal process,” Wagner said. Lawyers will provide various assistance to those who qualify for help, including negotiating with their landlords or the landlords’ attorneys, she said.

“A significant number of people never respond at all to the notice they get from the court,” Wagner said, adding that people don’t know what their rights are and what their defenses can be in such a proceeding. Some walk away thinking they have to leave if they haven’t paid. “It’s not worth me trying to fight this, I haven’t paid,” Wagner said of tenants’ struggle to fight an eviction notice.

On June 30, Lamont signed Executive Order 12D, which implemented certain requirements regarding evictions including requiring landlords to apply for the UniteCT rental assistance program prior to delivering an eviction notice for nonpayment of rent; giving tenants facing eviction at least 30 days’ notice prior to beginning an eviction; and providing those tenants an opportunity to continue all terms of the lease by paying outstanding rent within the 30-day period.

The emergency order was among the directives that was extended during this week’s special session. 

Erin Kemple, executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, said while the executive orders did slow things down, it didn’t stop eviction notices. 

“It did slow things down at the end of June, into early July, but it really picked up since then and we’re starting to see higher and higher filings every week compared to this time last year,” Kemple said. “It is closer to what we saw in 2019.”

According to the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, 246 new residential evictions were filed during the Labor Day week, a higher single-week total than at any time since the week of March 16, 2020. By Sept. 30, 2020, landlords filed a total of 5,106 eviction cases, but as of Sept. 17, landlords have filed 5,559 cases. 

Kemple said the “Right to Counsel” program will provide the resources to help more people who find themselves in a stressful situation, adding that tenants have frantically called about a notice they received that they think means they have to move out.

“A Notice to Quit is not a notice from a court,” Kemple said. Most tenants don’t know that they don’t actually have to leave unless a judge orders you out of the apartment, she said. 

Tenants in this situation have a right to seek legal counsel to fight the eviction, and Kemple said raising public awareness of the “Right to Counsel” law will let people know they will have somewhere to go to get that help. 

“At least I hope it will,” Kemple said.