UP CLOSE | Buried in an “avalanche of goodness”

UP CLOSE | Buried in an “avalanche of goodness”

How emergency housing relief during the pandemic left out New Haven’s most vulnerable
Published on April 14, 2022

Suzan Malcolm, a 43-year-old New Haven resident and single mother of four, worked at Goodwill for 17 years before losing her job in a wave of layoffs.

In her “strenuous” former role at the nonprofit, Malcolm provided home care to those recovering from brain injuries — struggling patients would sometimes throw chairs at her, grab her and hit her. Goodwill paid Malcolm $34 an hour, allowing her to care for the two children who lived with her in public housing and afford child support for the two others.

When she was laid off, she hoped to find a role in a different field, one that would pose less of a threat to her personal safety. But it was 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic began to ravage the country. Malcolm has not been able to find consistent employment since.

Amid the economic downturn and isolation of the pandemic, she found herself struggling to cover the bills she needed in order to keep her unit at Elm City Communities, New Haven’s public housing program for low-income families. “I couldn’t pay my rent,” Malcolm recalls. “But I did, because I had to.”

At the suggestion of staff at Elm City Communities, Malcolm turned to UniteCT, the state’s emergency rental assistance program that had emerged amid the pandemic to provide relief to an increasing amount of struggling residents.

When the pandemic struck the United States in March 2020, forcing droves of people out of their jobs, both local and federal legislators feared a wave of evictions. A host of emergency rental assistance programs like Coronavirus Assistance and Security Tenant Landlord Emergency, or CASTLE, and UniteCT emerged to help blunt the damage, as government money poured into the historically underfunded area of housing insecurity.

To activists and nonprofit leaders, this represented a once-in-a-lifetime chance to show the public the importance of investing in housing. However, a challenge remained: how the city and state would distribute this sudden influx of federal funding.

“All of this [COVID relief] money is like an avalanche of goodness,” said Karen Dubois-Walton, president of Elm City Communities. “But are we going to get buried by it? … The risk of not executing it really effectively, is certainly that risk for the families that could be served, but it’s also a risk in the political world of sending a message out that’s like, ‘See, these systems are ineffective, they’re inefficient.’”

Instead of investing federal money directly into local housing nonprofits, the city and state created new rental assistance programs to last through the pandemic — CASTLE and UniteCT. However, accessibility issues and bureaucratic complexities plagued these rollouts, putting additional burdens on the shoulders of both the housing insecure and their community allies.

Meanwhile, although New Haven’s housing nonprofits received their own influx of funds to be used on subsidies to help residents out of homelessness, systemic barriers within the city’s housing market have left these crucial funds sitting untouched.

Connecticut’s eviction moratorium ended on February 15. The same day, UniteCT abruptly closed to all new applications, having spent all of their initial funding.

In the end, Malcolm received enough from UniteCT to cover three months’ rent, which equated to a total of $2439. Yet a year later, and after multiple new variants of the virus, her financial situation — like many others in the city — has not left a state of crisis, even as programs of support have petered out.

“Give us a little break?” Malcolm said when asked what the city and state could have done better for the housing insecure during the pandemic. “I’m not saying they didn’t help me, because obviously they helped me out, but my point is, when you’re in a situation like that, you don’t know what to do. You’re stressed … and they help you a little bit and then they stop. And I still don’t have a job. So, you know, I just do the best I can.”

A “temporary” problem? 

On July 13, 2020, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont signed an executive order allocating $10 million in federal CARES Act funding to create a “temporary program of rental housing assistance.” This initiative was then named Temporary Rental Housing Assistance Program, or TRHAP.

“This will address both the arrearage caused by income loss and/or greater expenses due to COVID-19 that have negatively impacted a household’s ability to pay their full monthly rent over the next number of months,” read a statement from the Connecticut Department of Housing, Lamont and DOH commissioner Seila Mosquera Bruno.

At this point in the first summer of the pandemic, the state moratorium on evictions was in effect. However, about 230,000 households across Connecticut were estimated to be at risk of losing their homes because of an inability to make rent, according to Kiley Gosselin, executive director of the Partnership for Strong Communities, an organization focused on addressing homelesness and neighborhood development.

TRHAP was the first of a number of state and city emergency rental assistance programs, all of which followed a similar formula. Eligible low-income tenants who could prove that the COVID-19 pandemic had impacted their ability to pay rent could — after a document-heavy application process — receive up to $4,000 in rental assistance paid directly to their landlord.

Ryan Chiao, Senior Photographer

(Ryan Chiao, Senior Photographer)

Details of this program rang alarm bells for activists. THRAP applicants could not already be receiving any state or federal rental assistance, while priority was given to those who had been denied unemployment benefits, favoring English-language speakers with access to technology.

“They’ve created another bureaucratic application process that’s not going to be fulfilling the needs of all renters,” labor attorney and housing advocate Keren Salim told the New Haven Independent in July 2020.

TRHAP, with “temporary” in its name, was meant to be a short-term solution to a short-term problem. It was designed to keep Connecticut families housed through the pandemic, which Lamont and Mosquera-Bruno believed meant “over the next number of months.”

The program began in full on July 15, 2020. By Aug. 28, THRAP had temporarily closed to all applications, citing an “overwhelming number of submissions” — over 7,000.

Although TRHAP briefly reopened at the end of October 2020, before closing again just over a month later, the state was in the process of structuring a longer-term rental assistance program to tackle the scale of the housing crisis, said Bridgette Russell, Neighborhood Housing Services, or NHS, of New Haven managing director.

UniteCT launched on March 15, 2021, coming at the end of a destructive winter of case spikes in New Haven in which unemployment rates once again rose. With a $235 million initial budget, almost 25 times that of TRHAP’s initial funding, UniteCT represented a landmark investment into eviction prevention.

This was the commitment that housing activists had been waiting for — but the question of execution loomed.

UniteCT, the state’s “mammoth program”

With promises to cover up to $10,000 in rents and $1,500 in utilities for each qualifying tenant — more than double the highest contribution offered under TRHAP — UniteCT was expected to attract an immediate wave of applications from the struggling families it was designed to help.

However, by the end of April, almost two months into the program, only 10 households in the entire city of New Haven had been approved to receive UniteCT rental assistance.

Just 49 applications had even been submitted “successfully,” according to Urban League of Southern Connecticut Director Virginia Spell. Spell told the News that a significant number of applicants had been disqualified because some applicants were unable to locate physical copies of required documents, while others struggled to navigate the online platform.

The surprisingly slow rollout in New Haven inspired an all-hands-on-deck effort among city leaders to both spread the word about the program and ease the burden on applicants. In late spring and summer 2021, a working group that included the Livable City Initiative, the mayor’s office, faith leaders and local nonprofits organized a series of outreach efforts — knocking on doors, distributing flyers and holding promotional press conferences.

“It’s a complex system that really needs some work rolling out … getting the message into the communities so that they can take advantage of it,” said Rev. Kelcy Steele, pastor of the local Varick Memorial AME Zion Church, in April 2021. “Because I know that more than 10 people in New Haven need rental assistance, and all of this money is on the table.”

After several months of these efforts, the pace of applications suddenly picked up. As of April 6, 5276 New Haven residents have been approved to receive UniteCT funding, with 2,255 cases still pending. This amounts to a total of $24,108,235 in rental and utilities assistance, about 10 percent of the total funds UniteCT has distributed to date.

However, certain nonprofit leaders felt that the state had not invested in proper marketing programs to accompany the launch, placing the burden on local groups. Margaret Middleton, CEO of local homelessness nonprofit Columbus House, recalls being “involved with some early calls just making sure that people knew that these programs existed.”

(Jose Estrada, Production and Design Editor)

In an email to the News, Department of Housing spokesperson Aaron Turner described the state’s “extensive promotional efforts,” including “printed media; radio and tv shows; billboards” and “a comprehensive and interactive website.”

UniteCT is funded through the U.S. Treasury’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which was launched in January 2021 to support such state-administered initiatives amid the pandemic. According to Turner, the program’s budget arrived in a series of allocations totalling up to $400 million, excluding administrative costs.

Applicants to UniteCT must be making less than 80 percent of the Area Median Income, which equates to $78,500 for a household of four in New Haven. Both tenants and landlords are required to fill out separate online applications, uploading photographs of a range of documents — including past bills, proof of income, proof of COVID-19 financial hardship and the lease and deed to the property.

All who the News spoke to for this article said they appreciated the state taking on the effort to create such a program, which did provide crucial assistance for thousands of struggling New Haven families, like Malcolm’s. Others added that UniteCT helped mom-and-pop landlords stay afloat amid the pandemic — a period in which their livelihoods were threatened while larger, outside developers thrived.

“In theory, [UniteCT] sounded really good,” said Bridgette Russell, managing director of the Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven. “But in terms of application … practitioners on the ground level, they could have foreseen some of the issues, some of the obstacles that were going to be out there.”

Two critical obstacles to the rollout — once the initial question of promotion was somewhat resolved — were the high documental requirements put on the shoulders of applicants and the program’s reliance on technology, both of which became barriers to residents who might have needed UniteCT the most.

Dubois-Walton described UniteCT’s application as “very punitive and bureaucratic,” especially amid a pandemic that made it harder for tenants to access printed copies of the necessary documents.

Latoya McCrea, who holds a directorial role with Elm City Communities, found it “surprising” that UniteCT required tenants to present the lease and actual deed to the property instead of a simple letter of confirmation from the landlord. This made the process all the more difficult for struggling tenants and landlords who often could not easily locate paper copies of the documents.

The responsiveness of the call center for UniteCT was also quite poor, she said, recalling being left on hold “for a very, very long time” as she attempted to seek out updates for clients who had been waiting for months with no response after submitting their applications.

Furthermore, it took copious negotiation for those living in public housing developments like Elm City Communities to be eligible to apply for relief at all, as Dubois-Walton explained.

However, one major advantage for those applying to UniteCT from public housing was that the “landlords,” as staff of a housing assistance organization itself, were “here to help [their] residents stay housed and ease the burden, especially through the COVID crisis,” said Marilyn Dawson, Elm City Communities regional property manager.

Others reported that they had interacted with landlords who were reluctant to participate in any governmental assistance program. Housing activist Dione Dwyer shared that one woman she had tried to assist with UniteCT was evicted by a landlord who refused to fill out their side of the application.

The UniteCT website provides a “training” flowchart for tenants titled “How to work with your landlord.” For tenants with non-participating landlords, it details that UniteCT will contact the landlord to “encourage” them — but “if, after three attempts, it is confirmed the landlord can not be engaged, then your Case will be denied.”

Tenants are then instructed to search for a new landlord for 30 days. If, after this period, they are still unsuccessful, they “may be eligible for a $3,000 direct payment to stabilize [their] housing and prevent homelessness.”

John Lugo, co-founder and lead organizer of advocacy group Unidad Latina en Acción, told the News that UniteCT requirements made it impossible for many of New Haven’s immigrant families to even apply for the much-needed funds.

“All these details like forms of paid taxes, producing pay stubs,” Lugo said. “Again, we have a lot of people that work under the table and have really small companies. So they don’t have all the paperwork and they weren’t able to access the money.”

Yale Daily News

(Yale Daily News)

Unlike TRHAP and the city’s CASTLE program, UniteCT accepts applications through a centralized website, with no paper or hybrid option available. This choice to make it online-only stunned many local organizations, inspiring what Middleton called a “healthy amount of concern” given the disparity of technological access.

Malcolm told the News that she did not have a computer of her own to access the online-only UniteCT application. Luckily, an Elm City Communities staff member offered to walk Malcolm through the process over the telephone. To assemble the required documents, Malcolm recalls also having to take a number of separate trips to print documents out from an Elm City Communities office — “I had to jump through a lot of hoops,” she said.

“They thought the online [application] was going to be accessible and it was going to allow for the maximum number of people to be able to get into the program quickly,” said Robin Ladouceur, homeownership coordinator for Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven. “But we had people who were deaf, we had people who were blind. We had individuals with disabilities. We had older individuals who had very limited tech skills.”

In response to these technology concerns, Turner mentioned the mobile UniteCT bus funded by the Department of Housing to bring computers to applicants and a “technology resource map” that could paradoxically be found on their website.

According to Ladouceur, the economic disparities in terms of access to computers were one of the factors that led to such a heavy reliance on local nonprofits and Housing Counseling Agencies  — certified partner organizations of the Department of Housing — to do individual case management and walkthroughs of the application.

Local nonprofits step in to help

UniteCT was a “mammoth program,” Russell said, but its major initial administrative budget was predominantly dedicated to setting up the technological component of the program. To walk struggling individuals through the lengthy application process was another project in and of itself, and this burden fell on community organizations.

“And they always underfund the nonprofit agencies that they want to help them,” Russell added.

The Department of Housing even began cutting the number of internal staff working on UniteCT as early as winter 2021, reducing staff from 250 individuals to 162. Wait times for application processing, which had been 15 days on average at the peak of the program, ballooned to over two months.

Dubois-Walton described “huge backlogs” due to a mismatch between staffing resources and “the scale of what needed to be addressed.”

16 local housing nonprofits across the state were then subsidized by the state as official UniteCT “resource centers,” according to Parker. Yet these were not enough to meet the demand for assistance, as independent organizations throughout the state dispatched their teams to both promote the program and do the grueling work of taking individuals step-by-step through the complex application process.

In New Haven, these included not only housing-focused groups like Neighborhood Housing Services, Urban League of Southern Connecticut, New Reach and Columbus House but also Unidad Latina en Acción, the New Haven Free Public Library and even maternity care nonprofit New Haven Healthy Start.

Steele has assisted with UniteCT efforts for over a year as the director of neighborhood and faith-based partnerships for the nonprofit Supportive Housing Works. He told the News that local organizers “had to do way more” than rely on centralized Department of Housing efforts like the often-cited mobile van.

“We had one bus for the entire state,” Steele said. “The challenge was not being able to provide case management for those who are applying … and so we started to get individuals in our agency trained on how to fill out forms and be that liaison between United CT and the community if they had questions. And so that really caused our engagement to go up tremendously.”

Once the state had agreed to recognize the UniteCT eligibility of those like Malcolm who lived in public housing, Elm City Communities staff began to work one-on-one with residents in the summer of 2021. But they were only able to book the UniteCT van for one of many promotional events.

McCrea estimated that the application itself took about 45 minutes to an hour per resident, “if the residents have all of their paperwork,” and said that the process was “tedious” for on-the-ground workers like herself. Only 30 percent of the over 100 residents that she assisted received the UniteCT funds they had requested.

Lugo told the News that ULA had struggled to keep up with the scale of the community’s need for UniteCT assistance, which had strained the nonprofit’s limited capacity as they simultaneously kept up their own advocacy work. His staff had become “very frustrated,” he said.

There is an existing precedent for governments to ease certain bureaucratic application processes through collaboration with nonprofits, Middleton said. She pointed to the example of programs like SOAR, a nationally funded initiative that certifies nonprofit workers to help the unhoused apply for Social Security benefits, and questioned why with UniteCT “they weren’t paying for community service providers, or at least many of them, to do the work.”

Yale Daily News

(Yale Daily News)

Evidently, this unfunded grassroots assistance occurred regardless, and was instrumental to the program’s rollout among the people who it was designed to help. Even individuals who struggled with housing assistance themselves committed their time to helping others access the program.

Dione Dwyer, a 44-year-old Bridgeport resident who organizes for the housing advocacy group PT Partners, has been living in low-income housing for almost 20 years.

Dwyer first heard of UniteCT in meetings with Christie Stewart, chief initiative officer of The Housing Collective, in which the original ineligibility of tenants living in public housing was raised. Concerned for herself and her neighbors, she began to learn more about the program.

Once eligibility requirements changed, Dwyer applied for UniteCT around June 2021, covering her utilities bill and two months of overdue rental payments. With the goal of later assisting others with UniteCT, she decided to “train for it by applying for it,” because there was “no one there to train me.”

After scheduling the UniteCT van to visit her community, Dwyer began to volunteer aboard the bus to assist applicants — the state would only send one or two certified staff on each trip, which she said was nowhere near enough to handle the demand, causing them to seek out volunteers. Dwyer also started to help a few of her friends and neighbors fill out the forms, and word soon spread.

In the end, Dwyer said, she ended up single handedly assisting over 50 people in the community with their applications. Only about half were successful in getting funds.

At meetings with UniteCT officials, Dwyer recalls hearing complaints about “fraudulent acts,” meaning duplicated applications that meant applicants would not receive funds. But Dwyer believes that these problems traced back to cases begun on the UniteCT van that had been entirely lost through technological difficulties, an issue she had witnessed first-hand.

Aboard the van, she said, tenants were suddenly informed that they needed an email in order to apply to UniteCT, something that many low-income families did not have access to. Dwyer recalls talking to a woman who had applied to UniteCT a year prior who did not know how to log into the email to check her application status.

“She was like, ‘I don’t remember anything, I didn’t write it down,’” Dwyer said. “She just figured they knew what they were doing. So she just let them create her email, she didn’t know the password. … I tried like five different ways to help her remember … tried to call them up and tried to get a UniteCT representative to say give us an alternative … but none of it was working. So we started it over.”

Unlike these independent groups and individuals, Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven, a local Housing Counseling Agency, had a contract with the state to assist first with TRHAP and then with UniteCT case management. However, they officially cut ties with UniteCT as of the end of 2021 in order to turn their attention to mortgage assistance.

According to Ladouceur, Neighborhood Housing Services initially was in an auditing role, going through already-submitted applications “and making sure everything was in place, which was rare.” This process was “incredibly labor-heavy,” interrupting staff schedules and the organization’s usual homeownership assistance initiatives and soon they pivoted to outreach and intake work.

In addition to one-on-one assistance, Neighborhood Housing Services staff helped operate press events and promotional fairs at local schools and nonprofits and worked on the mobile van. During the peaks of the Delta and Omicron waves, they shifted to a system where applicants would drop off documents and then be walked through the application on the phone, similar to Malcolm’s process.

Russell questioned why, given the Department of Housing’s reliance on Housing Credit Agencies to execute the UniteCT program, they had “never been consulted” during the program’s creation and launch. Further, she said, the state’s subsidy had not been proportional to the hours that the organization ended up having to commit, as the different steps of obligations continued to expand.

Some applications took up to three hours with certain individuals, according to Ladouceur.

“We were pandemic frontline [workers],” Ladouceur said. “You have people who are incredibly stressed, people who were affected by the pandemic, who were sick … single mothers, and I have to tell you like the lion’s share of my UniteCT clients were single mothers who were riding on the border of poverty. … We were there with all of the tragedies.”

The rocky rollout of CASTLE

With largely the same fundamental structure as UniteCT, New Haven has been running CASTLE, an emergency housing assistance program of its own, since September of 2020. But a year and a half later, there is still unclaimed money in the pot.

CASTLE was established with an $800,000 budget from the city’s portion of the federal CARES Act funding. Tasked with implementing and facilitating the program was New Haven’s Livable City Initiative, a department that is primarily dedicated to the enforcement of the city’s housing code.

The program is available to residents who have already received state housing assistance, the application states, as to “enable tenant’s [sic] and homeowners to maximize their assistance.”

For New Haven residents with an income of less than 80 percent of the AMI who can prove verifiable income disruption due to the pandemic — whether it be through job loss, closures of businesses or reduction in hours — CASTLE offers to provide both renter and homeownership assistance. CASTLE can cover up to $12,000 of back rent or mortgage payments owed after March 2020.

However, by the end of October 2020, two months into the program, not a single dollar of CASTLE funding had been distributed.

(Stephanie Shao, Production and Design Editor)

Arlevia Samuel, director of the LCI, reported that at the time only 23 of almost 400 mailed applications had been submitted in full. While the rest were still under review, seven had already been disqualified — some, again, because of a landlord’s unwillingness to participate.

The application process for CASTLE, unlike UniteCT, relies on residents first reaching out by phone or email to inquire about the program. The city will then mail a paper application to be filled out and returned. However, the document requirements are of a similar scale to the state program — tax returns, paystubs, the written lease to the property and copies of rent or utility bills.

Struggles with CASTLE’s initial rollout appeared to again stem both from promotional difficulties and the burden of the application itself. Those living in subsidized housing developments were also initially ineligible, Dubois-Walton said, until advocacy work led to a change in policy. However, in the fall of 2020, Samuel told the Independent that “there are no changes that need to be made to the program.”

Soon, though, the city intensified their promotional efforts for CASTLE. These included flyers, TV advertisement spots, email blasts through the Board of Education and collaboration with local nonprofits, Samuel said.

According to statistics that Samuel provided to the News on April 5, the city has now distributed about $387,000 of their $800,000 budget. Out of the remaining pool, $200,000 is allocated for administration costs and $213,000 toward relief for residents.

However, only 130 CASTLE applications have been received by the LCI to date, 65 of which were accepted. While 17 remain in the queue to be reviewed, the rest were declared ineligible, withdrawn or returned due to reasons such as landlord reluctance.

When asked if difficulties with the rollout of the program had been anticipated, Samuel responded in the negative, stating, “It’s our process, why would I have expected it to be difficult?”

Samuel also said that, unlike with UniteCT, applicants to CASTLE have not struggled with the documentation requirements.

“You can’t really predict how people are going to apply,” Samuel said. “When all the programs initially came out, everybody thought there’s going to be this huge wave of foreclosures. … I don’t really know what happened, compared to what was predicted. The demand never became as great as we expected, or as fast and as furious as they were telling us it was going to come.”

Of the seven nonprofits the News spoke to, none reported having had as significant involvement assisting with CASTLE applications as compared to UniteCT.

Malcolm, despite being a New Haven resident with friends and family who are also housing insecure, said that she had never once heard about CASTLE as an option available to her. “I can’t apply for something I don’t know about,” she said.

“Rather than relying on community providers … [CASTLE] tasked an already very stretched Livable City Initiative, which does very important, noble work in other areas, but this wasn’t their bread-and-butter,” said Dubois-Walton. “The system did learn, it did evolve and get better over time, but folks really suffered in the meantime and lived with a lot of anxiety.”

Housing subsidies in a city without affordable housing?

In addition to funding the creation of state and city programs like UniteCT and CASTLE, a portion of federal COVID-19 relief money from the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan also trickled down to housing nonprofits.

The Greater New Haven Coordinated Access Network, or CAN, is a coalition of local nonprofits that work together to streamline the process of providing resources for unhoused families. Amid the pandemic, the CAN received a sudden influx of funding to provide their clients with federal Section 8 housing vouchers and state Rental Assistance Program certificates, according to senior manager Margaret LeFever.

Housing subsidies like Section 8 and RAP can help cover up to even a year’s rent for a new affordable unit of the recipient’s choice. These programs therefore would allow unhoused families and individuals in shelters across New Haven to move into a private and more permanent housing option.

When New Haven’s homelessness service providers first received a major new wave of funding for these vouchers amid the pandemic, the mood was beyond optimistic.

“Having this amount of subsidy come into our system would be a huge, huge improvement over what happened pre-pandemic,” Middleton said. Her organization Columbus House is a member of the CAN. “Leading to hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people being able to be housed. … It was a tremendous upside of the pandemic that we finally had enough housing supports.”

Nonprofits immediately began to act on this influx of funding, matching unhoused clients to vouchers and helping them fill out all of the necessary paperwork to “figure out what level of subsidy will help this person achieve stable permanent housing,” Middleton said. However, once these clients were matched, it became evident that the subsidies alone were not enough to help people out of homelessness.

Out of the 671 unhoused individuals currently served by the CAN, 196 are both matched to a housing subsidy and unable to find any affordable rental unit to use the subsidy on.

“The bottle-neck we’re seeing on the other end (getting people out of homelessness) is a direct result of a lack of affordable housing and landlords unwilling to rent to people exiting homelessness, even with a voucher,” Steve Werlin, executive director of homelessness service nonprofit Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, wrote in an email to the News.

Feteria Sheats, Landlord Engagement Specialist for United Way of Greater New Haven, shared that her organization had struggled to locate units for families matched to housing resources like Section 8 — even when they provided additional incentives, including an extra month’s rent and $1000 in guaranteed mitigation funds, to landlords.

Sheats said that the greatest barrier was the unavailability of affordable units in New Haven that fit within the subsidies’ price range. For the rare units that would emerge, “you can set up a viewing, but you go to the viewing and there are nine other people there for the same apartment.”

When asked about United Way’s landlord incentive program in September, LeFever told the News that the organization was struggling to find any landlords “willing to accept a new tenant at this point,” a sentiment that was echoed by Sheats over half a year later.

“Especially anyone that has past evictions on their records,” LeFever said. “Especially families where they don’t have any income, or if they have any criminal history … [landlords] feel that it is better to keep a unit vacant than fill it with someone who potentially might be at risk of being evicted.”

To utilize the subsidies of already-matched CAN clients, Middleton said, she and her colleagues have at times even had to look outside of New Haven due to the extent of the affordable housing crisis. Certain families have found apartments in Hartford.

As Columbus House transitions back to congregate shelter housing for the first time since the start of the pandemic, Middleton said, the strain on the organization’s capacity will only grow. It is a real possibility that they will be forced to discharge individuals who are already matched with subsidies and “are totally ready to go and rent an apartment, but we aren’t going to be able to support them with a shelter bed long enough to get them into it.”

“No amount of rental assistance is going to address the fundamental problem that we don’t have enough affordable housing for everybody,” Middleton said.

As the flood of funding runs dry, activists look to the future 

Two years into the pandemic, the long-touted “return to normalcy” has included the end of programs designed to assist the housing insecure. State and federal eviction moratoriums have expired, and UniteCT has run out of funds entirely, with no plans for replenishment.

The last holdovers from this temporary wave of government investment will almost certainly help a final group of New Haveners avoid eviction or find housing. Over $200,000 in CASTLE funding remains, while over 200 unhoused families in the CAN are matched to housing subsidies, although again the strain on the affordable housing market may leave many of these vouchers unused.

Fundamentally, low-income individuals and families in New Haven are still in need.

“I’m going through a lot right now,” said Malcolm. “Everything is hard right now. Everything went up — gas prices went up, food, everything.”

Lugo shared that already ten families he works with at ULA were facing eviction from their homes, while many others are homeless, “living under the bridges and in the parks of New Haven.” He warned that the city is “still in the middle of a crisis … and right now the crisis is getting worse.”

With UniteCT shut off with almost no prior notice — many interviewed told the News that they had simply logged on to the website on Feb. 15 to see an announcement that they had closed to applications — Lugo questioned why the city and state had not invested more of their federal COVID-19 relief money into housing. Dubois-Walton added that the state should have been able to use data projections to guess when their funds would max out.

The issue of housing investment has risen to the forefront of the discussion on a local level, with regards to Mayor Justin Elicker’s plans for distribution of another $53 million of New Haven’s allocation of American Rescue Plan funds. His proposal, which would invest $10 million into a new “I’m Home” housing initiative, is coming under fire from local activists.

Yale Daily News

(Yale Daily News)

The Sisters in Diaspora Collective, a group of immigrant and refugee women, has led a coalition to push for the city to invest $62.5 million, or 54 percent of its ARP funding pool, into housing. In their proposal, a portion of these funds would create monthly rental subsidies for those on waitlists for Section 8 and public housing, while the majority would be used to purchase properties from corporate landlords and transform them into affordable housing.

All housing activists and nonprofit workers interviewed echoed the Sisters in Diaspora Collective’s call for a greater dedication of ARP funding, with Middleton calling the current $10 million an “inadequate investment.”

On March 1, about two weeks after UniteCT closed to new applications, evictions spiked in New Haven. Since the start of the year, almost 300 evictions have been filed, the majority of them in predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods.

The need for more support is clear. But what, then, can be learned from the past two years about how to utilize new funding in a way that truly works to address the housing crisis?

While advocating for the continuation of well-funded eviction prevention and rapid rehousing work out of the context of a global pandemic, Dubois-Walton also argued for a policy of “presumptive eligibility” in contrast to the bureaucracy of UniteCT and CASTLE.

Individuals who have already successfully proven their financial insecurity for programs like food stamps, childcare benefits or subsidized housing should not have to do so all over again, said Dubois-Walton.

“We as a country invest so much more resources in trying to punitively dig into the finances of the very lowest income folks in our records … than we do on everyday citizens’ IRS filings,” Dubois-Walton said. “We’ve made a determination that if you’re middle or upper class and you cheat the system, we don’t really care so much about that. But if you are poor, we are going to have our foot on your neck to ensure that not a single extra dollar gets spent on you.”

Overall, nonprofit leaders also questioned why the city and state decided to create their own rental assistance programs instead of investing in service providers who have experience and connections.

In addition to the initial logistical difficulties with UniteCT and CASTLE’s launch, which may have been abated if they had chosen instead to expand an existing community program, Lugo argued that the unusually high requirements inherent to government programs had made the application process more burdensome.

Amid the current influx of evictions, many also shared that they were unsure whether these rental assistance programs had been enough to have any lasting effect on housing stability.

The state had not included any counseling or case management element in UniteCT, Russell said. With this in mind, she questioned whether any recipients of the funding had been put in a more sustainable situation. “Or are you just throwing money at a problem and not looking at long-term sustainability?”

Steele said that even those who had taken advantage of UniteCT had only been able to receive a few months of assistance, consequently leaving them “still in the same predicament” — like Suzan Malcolm, they are struggling to find employment, pay rent and keep their housing.

“The rest of the country is moving on,” Middleton said. “Their masks are off, and the money faucet has turned off … but people are still experiencing homelessness. Is it a success if we ‘return to normal’ and people are still housing insecure and homeless?”

UniteCT’s average rental assistance payment for each household statewide was $8,456 as of April 10, 2022.


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