WATERBURY – As housing and homelessness have become a more prominent issue in recent years, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., kicked off a stateside listening tour to focus on the state's housing challenges.

About 70 people packed the gymnasium floor at the North End Recreational Center on Sunday afternoon to hear ordinary citizens' ideas and questions as well as what Murphy will attempt to do at the federal level for housing in Connecticut.

The town hall-style meeting is the first in a series of upcoming events where Murphy gathered feedback from statewide residents about the unique challenges their communities are facing related to housing, including the rising cost of rent, the shortage of housing stock and lack of affordable housing, and poor housing conditions.

Murphy said he's noticed something unavoidable over the last five years: Everywhere he goes in the state, he hears more about housing becoming unaffordable, the inability of renters to remain in their homes, seniors' inability to keep paying rent or young people who don't want to stay in the state.

"Over half of all renters are paying more than 30% of their income in rent, but a quarter of renters are paying more than 50% of their income in rent," Murphy said.

Murphy said the state isn't building starter homes that young adults can get into compared to the past where there was a constant development. Towns have a disincentive to build starter homes because the taxes aren't enough to offset the expense to the town of the services to that property and the cost of children in the school system, he added.

About 15 speakers, which included landlords or people who worked in some relation with housing, went in front of the microphone to voice their concerns, ask questions or provide Murphy with possible solutions or ideas.

Dave Delohery, president of the Connecticut Manufactured Homeowners' Alliance and a resident of the Cedar Springs mobile home community in Southington, was involved with attempting to establish a fair rent commission in Beacon Falls and said the state needs a right of first refusal law.

"If it (right of first refusal law) had been in place when my park was purchased by out-of-state corporation from Michigan in 2019, the original owner would’ve been required to present it to us at the same price and terms and conditions as the agreement he’d come up with for the buyer," Delohery said. "Legislation like that is in existence in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont – various forms of it and in other jurisdictions around the country."

Out-of-state companies are purchasing mobile home communities by financing the purchase with low-interest, federally guaranteed loans. Those companies then turn around and hike up the rents, Delohery said.

Co-founder of the Hamden Tenants Union Paul Boudreau said over the last couple of years, he’s talked to thousands of tenants who are in peril of becoming homeless. They face 100% rent increases or $1,500-a-month increases in rent, he added.

"The whole system is adversarial. We have the corporate management groups coming in. They’re everywhere now. It’s an epidemic," Boudreau said. "We’re going to have an explosion of homelessness probably in the next six months and I’m seeing it happen at that level."

Waterbury landlord Robert Jackson said one important thing is that the tenants and landlords need to work together.

Jennifer Paradis, executive director at the Beth-El Center, a homeless response agency based in Milford, said President Joe Biden’s budget allocation for housing is not nearly enough. Nationally, there is just one unit for every three low-income households that need it.

"Homelessness in the state of Connecticut is up 40% in the past two years," Paradis said. "It took us eight years, the eight years prior to that, to decrease it by 40%."

Kellyann Day, CEO of New Reach that operates in the greater New Haven and Bridgeport areas to help people with housing, said she just came back from an out-of-state conference and the affordable housing crisis isn’t just a state issue but a national one.

"We went up 100% in Connecticut for homeless families since 2020," Day said. "We have 30 families living in hotels right now, just in New Haven, because we don’t have enough shelter beds because the state has not invested in the shelters in decades."

Murphy said that in Biden’s federal budget that he submitted last week, there is a $10 billion proposal that states could apply for to implement changes in zoning laws or permitting laws to allow for more housing to be built quicker and $7.5 billion investment in public housing agencies.

"I see this crisis as it exists now but as so many people here have said, if we don’t take some steps and some serious steps right now, it’s going to get much, much worse. So this is the moment in many ways to act," Murphy said.

Murphy said he has a total of four planned town hall meetings on housing across the state, which will be announced in order for him to listen and learn from the people. He said he will do the research into some of the speakers’ ideas and possible solutions.

"I want people to know I’m looking for ideas and that they are going to play a big part in the work I do on housing. I just wanted to listen today," Murphy said. "I wanted to use this to make sure that anything I’m working for when it comes to making housing more affordable is anchored in what actually matters to people in Connecticut."