A Call for Expanding Just Cause Eviction Protections in Connecticut: Jay Osborne’s Story

By: Jay Osborne, CT Tenants Union, Windham Mills Tenant Union

Jay Osborne, a tenant leader and co-leader of Windham Mills Tenant Union, shared his experience with the Partnership’s Chelsea Ross. In the movement for Just Cause Eviction Protections in Connecticut, experiences like Jay are paramount to center, and help us see the urgent need for stronger safeguards to protect tenants’ rights. This is Jay’s story:

The Significance of Stable, Affordable Housing

Stability. That’s really where it all starts as far as communities. One of my big focuses as a former social worker and housing advocate professionally for many, many years, I saw how it all starts with housing, it all starts with housing stability. When you’re trying to help somebody with physical health, mental health, addiction recovery, all of those things become compounded when a person doesn’t have their most basic needs met. We need a roof over our head, we need food, we need clothing. It is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is not some great aspiration to say everybody needs the most basic staple, which is housing.

Challenges Faced by Neighbors

My story is I moved into an apartment building four years ago. I did not have a maintenance issue personally at all, but I noticed almost immediately that five of my disabled neighbors at the time, they were in wheelchairs, several still live here, they couldn’t get in or out of the building. People usually complain about not being able to get into their building. My neighbors couldn’t get out because of a broken door. We have an electronic door system. This happened to all the tenants, but those of us who were mobile, were less impacted. That went on for over seven months.

I was a brand-new person in the building, but I’m like, “hey, what’s going on?” I began trying to talk with my neighbors. They were terrified, absolutely terrified to make a maintenance request. I moved here from New York City, and at my last job in New York I was the senior property manager for the oldest and largest real estate company in America. The last thing I expected was someone being fearful of contacting management to make a maintenance request. That is part of what I did, I helped people literally into the thousands to try to improve their housing. So, I’m saying to my neighbors, “why are people afraid?” Their responses were “Oh, they won’t renew your lease.” They started citing story after story, real names of people who used to live here that are no longer here because they asked for their faucet to be fixed or reported roof leaks, and then their leases weren’t renewed. I’m like, this has got to be real because you could see the fear in folks. I heard about it at first, and then as I had been here for a year, I started watching amazingly good families leave one after another. It was almost like a revolving door and almost exclusively due to maintenance requests. It was like, you make a complaint, we don’t need you.

Though I am not over 62, I am a disabled person, and I have just cause eviction protections under the current law. My other neighbors, the folks who are not disabled or 62, don’t. It’s a very real threat for them. It is so illogical that it’s gone this far in Connecticut. Not having worked in housing in Connecticut in 30 years, I was shocked. I guess I took a lot for granted working in New York for over 10 years and then before that was in Washington DC, where there are tremendous protections for folks. I was shocked that Connecticut wasn’t there. We are getting there now.

Organizing for Change

So, I started organizing my neighbors. I started with a few other neighbors who I was able to support, including building them up emotionally like, “you can do this, you’re not gonna get evicted and whatnot”. That’s how it started.

Management was absolutely non-responsive to my requests. In fact, I got letters stating, “why are you complaining? You’re not impacted in this way,” or “you’re the only person complaining, etc.” Then I became targeted legally with eviction every six months and that hasn’t ended. They lose every case, but they haven’t stopped with the legal harassment and whatnot. I can take it. I’d much rather they target me than anyone else. I’m the duck. It literally is water off my back. Other folks are emotionally traumatized. They’re afraid of their credit scores being impacted because of eviction going on their record. You know, even the fact that there’s a case, although we know it doesn’t go on their record, people see their name with a docket number and they panic. This is why I got involved.

Just cause eviction protections are exactly why I have not been evicted. It’s because each time I go to court, and I show proof I am a permanently disabled person and then the judge goes “okay so what else do you have against this guy?” And the answer is always nothing. I have that protection. Folks that don’t have that protection are at risk because landlords don’t have to have any reason. They can just not want to rent to them.

It’s not that I’m a martyr, but every cause needs somebody who is willing to speak about what they’ve gone through. I am so in admiration of those who are willing to put their face to their cause and tell their story because that’s how you make change. When people share their struggle, people who perhaps don’t understand it but are listening think “oh, wait a minute, oh, wait, that could be my mom or that could be my brother or that could be my cousin telling that same story.”

We have to listen to each other, and I thought, I’m living in a building where people are terrified to tell their story. Absolutely terrified. I thought, my goodness, this is a topic that I’m very comfortable with and I’m educated on. Let me see how I can help others to take away some of that fear by saying, you know, you have rights, here they are.

I had an opportunity to meet a retired nurse outside in a park, who lives next door, and her building is owned and managed by the same people. It was just this like camaraderie, knowing that conditions for our neighbors were deplorable. I started thinking, she’s got protections, I’ve got protections. She’s over 62, I’m disabled. Together, we could do something. And thus, the tenant union was started.

Addressing Misconceptions and Opposition

So unfortunately, there are many landlords in Connecticut’s legislature, including those serving on the housing committee. I’m not anti-landlord. I was a landlord, several people in my family are landlords. I made a career on being a decent landlord and then making that model duplicatable across the entire city of New York. Being a decent landlord doesn’t have to be unprofitable.

We’re simply asking for existing protections to be expanded to apply to everybody so that situations like an unscrupulous person who says “you know what? This tenant is never gonna go for a five or six hundred dollar a month increase, but a new tenant might. So let me just not renew the lease to this person get rid of them.”

You don’t lose control of your property; you just have to basically cross your T’s and dot your I’s. That’s the main argument I have heard.  “Well, we lose control. And what happens if you have that tenant that’s unruly or this or that? My other tenants would suffer.” Well, then you have just cause. If a person is in violation of their lease, then you have just cause. If somebody is a nuisance, they’re selling drugs, they’re loud, they haven’t paid rent, that’s all just cause.

Stability for Communities

Just cause really adds to the stability of our communities. It is really disturbing for me to see young kids being uprooted in the middle of the school year and move, oftentimes across the state, because oftentimes parents aren’t just moving a couple blocks away. They go from Willimantic to Hartford or Willimantic to Manchester, etc. Those kids get set back six months, eight months academically. What is that doing for their future? When we think about communities and neighborhoods and our state community, protecting renters just strengthens our communities overall.

I live in a transient community. It’s one of the poorest towns in the state of Connecticut. Having people evicted or the potential of eviction, having people just moving out because their leases aren’t renewed and they’re fleeing before the sheriff gets there is not the way to create a more stable environment for the town.

I think of the impact for the state of Connecticut. Most of the folks that are impacted are minorities and under-employed, low-income earners, etc. The state of Connecticut is providing monies over and over, first and last month’s rent, security deposits. This is coming out of taxpayer dollars. Expanding Just Cause Protections is really beneficial for the state as far as from an economic point of keeping people in place saves everybody money.

A Call to Action

We’re asking for our legislators to wake up and realize that they have the opportunity to help 1.3 million of their constituents statewide. We have a state of three and a half million people and 1.3 million are renters. We need to add protections for all these folks and we’re asking for support.

How do we get people to support this movement? We have many homeowners who don’t rent. We have folks who have never rented a day in their life, but they’re down with the cause because they understand how this is going to impact their communities in a positive way to add stability.

We need to do this. This is an obligation. As a person with more rights, it just doesn’t feel right. Most people, you know, want to be the person who has additional privileges in life. I’m thinking, “wait a minute, here’s one of the first times in my life that I’m actually in a protected class with additional privileges,” and it doesn’t feel right because so many others have been left behind. This campaign is really about being fair to all of our citizens, not just folks who happen to be in a special class of the elderly and or the disabled.

Partnership urges our legislators to expand Just Cause Eviction Protections.

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