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With eviction filings more than doubling during 2021, tenants in need have access to free legal representation through that court process as the state’s “Right to Counsel” program kicks off today. 

The first phase of the program begins in 14 zip codes that represent 25% of the eviction filings throughout Connecticut. 

Tenants can see if they are eligible, whether services are being provided in their area, or be referred to other free resources through or by using the toll-free hotline, 1-800-559-1565

“We want folks to know that those zip codes are a substantial representation of eviction filings that occur statewide,” said Tiffany Walton, grants program director for the Connecticut Bar Foundation, which administers the program.

Four of the state’s cities — Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury – are on the

Princeton University Eviction Lab’s list of the 100 large cities with the highest evictions rates

across the country, according to officials from the foundation.

In January 2021, there were 555 statewide monthly eviction notices filed. The number ballooned to 1,126 in November and then to 1,230 in December.

“We are so excited to get it started,” said Natalie Wagner, executive director of the Connecticut Bar Foundation. “It’s the culmination of so many people’s collective efforts.” 

Right to Counsel services will also be immediately available to individuals who served in the armed forces despite where they live in Connecticut. Program coordinators said additional zip codes will be added as additional attorneys are hired and trained.

“People are desperate. People are in crisis and are looking to anyone who can help,” Wagner said. 

Program coordinators said the first two years of the funding comes from $20 million in federal pandemic relief, with another $2.4 million in Housing and Urban Development money and additional dollars from various foundations.

Wagner said an average of 20,000 evictions are filed in Connecticut courts annually, but only about 7% of tenants have a lawyer representing them. Conversely, 80% of landlords have representation in these matters.

While landlords are required to send a “Notice to Quit” when they want to start eviction proceedings, Wagner said the Right to Counsel program will help tenants understand that they have options when presented with an eviction notice. The Connecticut Fair Housing Center has collected court data that shows tenants facing eviction are nearly 90% more likely to be ordered out of their residences if they don’t have an attorney. They also said evictions tend to impact people of color and low-income women disproportionately.

“What we want is to educate tenants about the fact that they do have rights, and they don’t have to immediately move out when they receive that notice,” Wagner said. The Right to Counsel program will offer them an option to figure out whether they can avoid eviction or at least get additional time to move out, she added. 

However, some property owners are concerned about the program, citing a longer process and bigger financial losses to landlords resulting in higher rents for tenants.

John Souza, president of the CT Coalition of Property Owners, said he is concerned the addition of more lawyers to the process will just slow it down, resulting in a financial burden to landlords, many of whom depend on that rent money as income.

Souza said that the vast majority of eviction filings stem from nonpayment of rent. He pointed to the summary process in housing court, where a housing mediator would work on drafting an agreement between tenants and landlords. 

Quick resolution to these cases would benefit both sides, Souza said.

“If the system works from start to finish in 45 days, landlords would take a chance on anybody for the most part,” Souza said. “At the end of the next month, if the whole thing is resolved, I have a smaller chance of losing money. If it takes me 6 months to resolve someone not paying, I’m losing six months and can’t recover the money.”

Souza added that he thinks some of the money going toward the Right to Counsel program could be used for housing assistance programs.

Souza said he understands there are “bad landlords“ out there, but most simply want to make a living and do want to work through a fair process with tenants who are struggling. 

“I want to work with them, I’m happy to help people, but it has to work both ways. Everybody is trying to make a living. Everyone has bills to pay,” Souza said. 

The General Assembly passed a law last year making Connecticut one of only three states to have a statewide program. Connecticut is the second to actually launch one. Some local governments – including New York City – have had similar programs in place before. 

Nonprofit organizations who will provide attorneys to tenants include: Connecticut Legal Services, Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, Greater Hartford Legal Aid,

and New Haven Legal Assistance Association.

Wagner said, as of Monday, 25 attorneys – a combination of new hires and current staff assigned to Right to Counsel – will be providing direct representation to tenants.

Zip codes where qualifying residents can access this program as of today are: Bridgeport, 06610; Danielson, 06239; Hartford, 06105, 06106, 06112, 06114, 06120; New Haven, 06511, 06513, 06519; Putnam, 06260; Waterbury, 06710; West Haven, 06516; Willimantic, 06226.