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A trio of advocacy groups has charged that the Connecticut Department of Social Services, through its Rental Assistance Program (RAP), is promoting racial and economic segregation, and the groups are ready to go to court to force a change. In an initial move preceding an anticipated class action suit, the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, in conjunction with Connecticut Legal Services and the New Haven Legal Assistance Association, filed on Sept. 28 a formal administrative complaint with DSS urging an immediate increase in RAP payments. The complaint seeks a declaratory ruling from the department on two issues: Whether DSS is required by statute to raise the RAP assistance levels to at least the current DSS Section 8 Fair Market Rent levels and whether DSS is required to establish a housing mobility and counseling program to assist certificate holders with securing rental choice. According to Philip Tegeler, legal director of CCLU, the action is “part of work we’re doing with Legal Services and other civil rights groups to try and address the issue of housing segregation through zoning, location of subsidized housing and other government housing programs.” Under the RAP program, which is modeled after the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8 program, qualified families are allotted rent subsidies in the form of vouchers used to pay part of their rent. Recipients are required to pay 40 percent of their adjusted gross income for rent and utilities, and the state picks up the rest, up to a maximum “fair market rent level.” Unlike the federal program, under which payment standards are adjusted annually, state RAP levels have not been adjusted since 1990, a period during which housing costs have soared. According to the chart used to determine fair market rents, a family seeking a two-bedroom apartment in non-metro areas of Hartford County is limited to apartments costing no more than $522 a month. The charge made against DSS is that the allowable rent levels are so inadequate that families are unable to obtain housing outside of poor, segregated areas. That, according to the complaint, violates Section 17b-812(d) of the Connecticut General Statutes, which directs DSS to “administer the program … to promote housing choice for certificate holders and encourage racial and economic integration.” SIMILAR TO SHEFF Tegeler says the current situation in Connecticut correlates with the conditions and mandates outlined in Sheff v. O’Neill, a landmark desegregation suit in which the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that racial segregation in Hartford’s schools violates the state Constitution. “It’s clear,” says Tegeler, “that the patterns of school segregation we see in this state are closely related to government policies like this that encourage housing segregation.” According to Tegeler, DSS has already informally indicated that they do not have the funds to increase the rents, or to take the steps the petition seeks. “Essentially,” he says, “this is a procedural step we are required to take before taking the issue to court. We’ve set a 60-day clock running during which, according to state procedure, the department either has to issue a ruling or decline to rule.” Co-counsel Amy Eppler-Epstein of New Haven Legal Assistance says her agency deals first-hand with the entrenched racial and economic isolation that RAP was meant to remedy. “Housing desegregation,” she says, “is a cornerstone of making our society more just and equitable. Allowing people a choice of where they live carries over into other areas of society such as opportunities for employment and education.” But DSS spokesman Matthew Barrett said, “The state appropriations available have not supported a rent increase in the program.” He said that DSS believes they are in compliance with the state laws governing the Rental Assistance Program, and that they intend to review the request for declaratory ruling and respond within the required 60 days. Barrett’s statement that “there is a broad funding issue at the base of this issue” alludes to what is essentially the underlying strategy of the advocates’ action. “Hopefully,” says Eppler-Epstein, “this action will spur the legislature to supply the funds to help the RAP catch up to at least what the federal Section 8 program is doing.”

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