Rhode Island Lacks Protections, Plan for Tenants

Lawyers and advocates say that Governor Raimondo's rental assistance program does not do nearly enough to help renters facing evictions or poor living conditions

Governor Gina Raimondo announced a new diversion program for tenants who are facing eviction for nonpayment of rent during her press conference last Friday. The Safe Harbor Housing Program is an optional mediation program for tenants and landlords overseen by the United Way of Rhode Island and funded by $7 million in CARES Act dollars.

In the press conference, Raimondo said that the diversion program and additional rental assistance is a short-term solution to a larger problem that she hopes the legislature will step up to address. But not only does the program fall far short of what lawyers and advocates say is necessary to stave off an eviction crisis, it also doesn’t address the problem of burdensome restrictions that plagued the first $6.5 million in rental assistance, of which less than 5 percent has been distributed to date.

The $7 million the Governor has allocated for the Safe Harbor program includes $200,000 for legal services for tenants, and additional funding for the United Way 211 call center and support staff, according to governor’s office spokesperson Audrey Lucas. But tenants and landlords must both agree to participate, and even then, only tenants who meet certain income restrictions and are behind on rent and facing eviction for that reason are eligible.

Rhode Island was arguably in the midst of a housing crisis before the pandemic began. Due in part to a shortage of affordable housing, over 70 percent of “extremely low income” and “low income” households were cost burdened, according to the National Low Income Housing Association, meaning they were spending at least 30 percent of their income on housing costs. In 2016, the year with the most recent data, the eviction rate in Rhode Island was 3.1 percent, putting it at double the rate of Massachusetts and the highest in New England, according to data from Eviction Lab. Black and Latinx people, who have historically faced discriminatory lending and rental practices, are more likely to be cost burdened or evicted.

The Rhode Island courts moved on July 1 to process evictions that landlords have filed since the courts closed in March, and at least 500 such evictions have been initiated. (Evictions filed before the courts’ closure that had not been completed were processed in June). For people living in housing with a federally backed mortgage or in federally-subsidized housing, an eviction moratorium put in place by the CARES Act will continue until July 25.

According to Jennifer Wood, executive director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice, even if the rental assistance were enough, it would only address one aspect of the state’s current housing crisis and potential onslaught of evictions to come.

The Center for Justice is the state’s only law firm that provides free legal aid to tenants not living in federally-subsidized housing, and was recently allocated CARES Act funds from the City of Providence to provide legal assistance to tenants facing eviction. Wood says that tenants can be evicted for three reasons: nonpayment of rent, termination of the tenancy for reasons other than nonpayment (such as failing to uphold the terms of the lease), or the term of the lease ending and the landlord refusing to renew.

While rental assistance only protects tenants facing the first category of evictions, an eviction moratorium could prevent landlords from kicking people out for a wider range of reasons.

But in Raimondo’s Friday press conference, she suggested for the first time that she isn’t sure if her emergency powers grant her the authority to enact an eviction moratorium. When asked by reporter Steve Ahlquist at a press conference in June why she hadn’t enacted an eviction moratorium, Raimondo said that she had “not ruled that out” but was working on what she saw as a more sustainable solution––a mediation process.

Raimondo didn’t say during Friday’s press conference why she now believes she may not have the authority to sign an executive order declaring a moratorium, and her office did not respond to a request for comment on the issue. Wood says that it is her stance, and the stance of the Homes RI coalition, that Raimondo’s emergency powers would allow her to enact such an order.

The state legislature stopped meeting in March and declined to arrange for remote voting, making it more challenging for organizers to influence housing policy. (The legislature reconvened yesterday.)

Max Binder, an organizer with Tenant Network RI, said that it has “not been clear how decisions are being made” when it comes to rental assistance. Tenant Network RI is a coalition that was formed after the Covid-19 outbreak in Rhode Island to support tenants dealing with self-help evictions, find sources for rent assistance, and organize tenants councils.

Raimondo has not said how she has decided how much funding to allocate for rental assistance, nor did her office respond to a request for comment on how decisions were being made.

Both Wood and Binder emphasized that the Governor has not put forward any comprehensive plan to help tenants––who make up about 40% of Rhode Islanders––since evictions resumed on June 1. Eviction Lab’s scorecard, assessing state policy responses to the housing crisis amid Covid-19, gave Rhode Island .5/5 stars because no policies are in place to keep tenants in their homes, except for rental assistance.

Instead, the fate of tenants has been left to administrative decisions made by the courts. The courts were closed from March 17 to June 1, making it impossible for landlords to legally evict tenants.

Did the lack of a gubernatorial or legislative eviction moratorium matter? According to Jennifer Wood, executive director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice, yes––it was a “major problem.” 

The difference between the court closure and an actual eviction moratorium was important, Wood said, because the Governor didn’t actually enact any policies to address housing concerns that became especially urgent as Covid-19 hit Rhode Island. 

While the courts were closed, the lack of an eviction moratorium or order from the governor created confusion among both tenants and landlords, Wood said. Tenants didn’t know whether landlords could force them to move out for nonpayment, or whether they were still responsible for paying rent. Jordan Mickman, a tenants lawyer at the Center for Justice, said that he spent much of his time this spring “debunking myths that have resulted from misinformation,” which he attributes in part to the lack of clarity from the Governor.

Additionally, the Judiciary’s decisionmaking process about when courts could be safely opened determined when evictions would resume––not an intentional policy based on public health indicators such as hospitalization or death rates.

That is to say, according to Wood, since Raimondo never issued a directive with the recognition that evicting people, or forcing people to move will only exacerbate the existing public health crisis, the rate at which evictions are proceeding is solely based on the court’s schedule. Any halt to evictions, Wood said, was a symptom of an administrative decision.

Just as importantly, the pandemic has shifted the terms of negotiations between tenants and landlords. In most cases pre-pandemic, Wood said, the best outcome that the Center For Justice could achieve for a tenant facing an eviction or substandard living conditions was buying them time, and sometimes money, to move into another affordable unit. During a pandemic, moving is not a desirable outcome. “It shifts what you are negotiating for,” Wood said.

Prior to the Governor’s announcement on Friday, a coalition of lawyers, policy analysts, and housing rights advocates had put out demands as part of the Homes RI coalition. The demands included $100 million in rental assistance (over seven times what the governor has allocated) and the creation of a mandatory diversion program for tenants and landlords to mediate evictions due to nonpayment.

While the diversion program Raimondo proposed isn’t mandatory, landlords do have an incentive to participate. Participants in the program are eligible for up to six months worth of rental assistance if they reach payment agreements. Rental assistance is a direct payment to landlords, and in many cases, landlords won’t recoup the full lost rent if they evict their tenants.

There’s an additional demand that Tenant Network RI has made and the Center for Justice has floated: a partial or full cancellation of rent. Even with an eviction moratorium, tenants would be on the hook for rent, and would have to pay eventually to avoid eviction and damaged credit scores.

Why should tenants be asked to pay full rent in the first place?

Jordan Mickman, the Center for Justice tenants lawyer, pointed out that the Superior Court has established a program to help small businesses remain operational even if they can’t cover their costs. But no such program exists to allow landlords to continue providing housing for tenants who can’t pay.

Mickman compared restaurant owners and landlords: “landlords get 100 percent of rent, but restaurants are at 50 percent capacity.” That is to say, the state is helping small businesses keep operating despite bringing in much lower profits than before. Why then, Mickman asks, are tenants required to pay full rent?

The counterargument is that landlords need to pay their mortgages. This is only partially true. The “mortgage bailout” provision of the CARES Act allows people with mortgages to postpone payments for six months, with the option to renew for another six months. This provision applies to 60 percent of Rhode Islanders with mortgages. And in April, 26 financial institutions across the state signed onto a pledge to give mortgagers the option to delay payments for up to 90 days.

So while some landlords may be making monthly mortgage payments, tenants have no way of knowing if their landlords are on the hook.

It’s tough to imagine the governor or legislature supporting any type of rent cancellation. But at the hyperlocal level, Tenant Network RI is helping organize tenants councils––coalitions of tenants who share a landlord and are collectively negotiating for rent reduction or other measures. These councils, says Binder, the Tenant Network RI organizer, are an important step towards “building a base of tenant power in the state.”