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Film preview for ‘Providence Lost’ sparks conversation about housing crisis solutions



After the preview of the documentary Providence Lost (2019) Monday evening, a panel discussed the issue of housing in Providence and Rhode Island, and many solutions to the crisis were offered.

Stephen Tobin and Madonna Trottier

Providence Lost, a 30-minute documentary film by Oscar Dupuy d’Angeac, tells the story of the Trottier family, Butch, Madonna and their son, Stephen Tobin. The film follows the story of the family’s eviction from their Providence apartment, the grinding search for a new, affordable place to live, and their eventual homelessness. Butch Trottier died during the eviction process, from complications resulting from his hospitalization after a panic attack. Madonna and Stephen now live outside the city.

After the film there was a panel discussion featuring Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and local leaders to address the soaring rents and evictions faced by many Rhode Islanders, and what the City and the State can do to address the housing crisis.

Some context:

Wages in Rhode Island have been stagnant for the past decade. At the same time, housing costs have risen and our residents of communities around the state.

In fact, more than 145,000 Rhode Island households (35 percent of all households) are housing cost burdened. We lag far behind our New England neighbors in making investments in community development. We spend only $21.90 per capita, compared to Massachusetts, which spends $100.88, and Connecticut, which spends $95.78.

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“This project began a year and a half ago when I’m met the Trottiers at the start of a very difficult moment in their lives, and it was also around that time that I fell upon this sentence that has stayed with me from physicist Karen Barad who writes that, ‘woven into the fabric of existence is an invitation to live justly,'” said Oscar Dupuy d’Angeac, who directed the film and is the co-founder of Signs of Providence, a media collective confronting Rhode Island’s housing crisis.

“I’ve been struck by that word, ‘invitation’ because no one’s gonna force us,” continued Dupuy d’Angeac. “No one says, ‘Here, you have to live this way,’ but it is a possibility… In these days of fear and folly we’re tempted to say that it’s already hard enough to just live, never mind living justly. But it is precisely because of this dominant injustice that we must accept, with courage, invitations to live justly when they present themselves and for me tonight is such an invitation.

“The film we’re going to watch is not a happy one, but it’s a hopeful one. We would not be sharing it tonight if we did not know that solutions to the eviction and housing crisis are within our reach.”

Dupuy d’Angeac offered a website, Evicted Rode Island that hosts a list of “specific policy reforms that we can take as a City and as a State to address the eviction crisis that we’re experiencing and the housing crisis more generally.” The site also has resources for tenants currently facing evictions.

Dupuy d’Angeac thanked the subjects of his film Madonna Trottier and Stephen Tobin for their bravery and “for allowing me into your lives, which is crazy, I can’t believe that, but thank you for your bravery, your humor, and your love.”

The panel was moderated by the Reverend Dr Donnie Anderson of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. Here she introduces the panel.

“What is your primary reaction, what is the primary thing that
you walk away with from the showing tonight?” asked Reverend Anderson.

“Honestly, I feel a lot of anger,” said Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza. “I feel a lot of anger because this story is a direct consequence of the erosion of the social safety net that we’ve allowed to happen over a long period of time.

“As I watched the film I thought a lot about being an attorney have Rhode Island Legal Services working on housing issues, and I remember then how it felt, as though legal services was under attack,” continued Elorza. “Having an attorney in so many cases, even if you can’t win the case, it’s a difference between a tenant showing up and having all of their stuff thrown out on the street, versus having two to three weeks, sometimes even a couple of months, to transition to another place.

“It’s incumbent upon us to make sure that we have the right kind of policy ideas and prescriptions to create that social safety net that prevents stories like this…”

“Watching this film, it just brings me back to the reality that when it comes to affordable housing and what we’re doing as the community as a whole, we need to do more.,” said Representative Shelby Maldonado (Democrat, District 56, Central Falls).

“It’s not just my role as an elected official, but the community’s, as a whole, to understand the issues that are happening in our towns. It is our role to put forward policies that will create a different pathway for individuals who are struggling, but it’s also important for the community to witness what it’s like for individuals who are struggling on a daily basis. It’s one thing to read about it, it’s another thing to walk in it…”

“My fundamental reaction obviously is anger and sadness, but the issue that the film really poses the basic question of whether housing, which is a fundamental human need, is a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder or is it a basic human right?” said Jennifer Wood, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice.

“I guess I want to say first that my heart is heavy and hurting,” said DeeDee Williams, Deputy Director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. “This is something I see every day, but thank you Oscar for putting a human face to this issue.”

Too often, continued Williams, “we don’t put a face to this pain. This is a crisis and it’s time that somebody said enough is enough…”

“I think my sense right now is pretty obvious and it seems like we’re all on the same page,” said Dupuy d’Angeac. “There is a housing crisis and solutions are going to take a long time and a lot of organizing but there’s also in extreme immediate need and we needs to come up with solutions today.”

“I did [the film] because she wouldn’t put the heat on in December and January,” said Madonna Trottier, in emotional and heartbreaking testimony “and the next thing I know I was in court getting thrown out.” Trottier, her deceased husband and her son Stephen are the subjects of the film.

“I went everywhere for help. Nobody wanted to help. There was one man, that lived next door to me, he searched every single day and he couldn’t find me [a new apartment.] I got up every day and I cleaned the yard, swept it up and kept everything clean.But that didn’t matter to her [the landlord]. The only thing that mattered to her was that she had her $1,500 a month.

“If there was rain, the windows came in and it was all soaking wet in the house. If a little bit of wind blew the windows were on the kitchen floor. You couldn’t take a bath because the water would be dripping down from upstairs. So we taped up the windows. That didn’t work. She came in one day and asked, ‘How do you stand it, it is so-cold?’ ‘Well do something about it!’

“She said ‘Well, I’ll go to the store and I’ll get some the plastic and come back and put it on your windows.'”

She never came back, said Trottier.

Madonna Trottier gave me a tour of her apartment prior to being evicted in MArch of 2018:

“We stayed during the cold. We’d go out to the car, get warm, come back then go back out again. Used more gas than anything, using the car to keep us warm.

“All I can say is thank God my husband didn’t live to se me and my son living in the car for almost a year.

“Why do the landlords want $1600 for two rooms?” asked Trottier. “They never come tho shovel up the snow or anything else. We had to do it ourselves. We had no heat and they did nothing about it. All she kept doing is go, ‘Get the rent in here, get the rent in here.’ So I got mad and wouldn’t give her the rent.

“I went down to the lawyer on Union Avenue and I give him the rent and told him to hold it until a certain time to see if she was going to do anything but she didn’t do nothing,” continued Trottier. “But she got her stupid rent and she also put us on the street. We had to get rid of all our furniture, everything. If it wasn’t for Oscar I don’t know what we would have done.

“We’d eat in the car, we slept in the car. We’d go into restaurants to clean up, change our clothes. My son went through Hell. I didn’t care about me I cared about my son. My husband was getting panicky. I went down to the storage one day to put some stuff in there because I knew they were coming to padlock the door.

“I came back, they had the back door busted down, they had the front door busted down. [My son] had a lot of stuff left up in the apartment and they were throwing it into Jones’ warehouse They didn’t ask us. They threw everything in there. They kept sending me a bill, I told them to stuff it. They told me to send them a note, sign it, and they would dispose of it. So that’s what I did…”

“I know what it is for me and my family but, this could happen to any any one of us tomorrow,” said Stephen Tobin, the son of Madonna Trottier. Then turning to Mayor Elorza, Tobin asked, “I’d like to know what the plan is to see that this does not happen again. I know things like this take time but you’re running into your second election and is it just going to get pushed to the Mayor or the next Governor?”

“We’re really looking for some specific ideas. What are some specific ideas and what’s a timeline that we can work towards to really try and get some of these specific things done?” asked Reverend Anderson.

Mayor Elorza outlined a series of efforts he has undertaken and alos mentioned a few challenges:

  • The big thing is that it’s part of the budget that we submitted to the City Council. We have an allocation for $150,000 to do a comprehensive housing plan.
  • We ask everyone to be part of our housing summit that we’re planning for September.
  • We don’t have an idea of what the amount of student housing is and what the impact has been.
  • What are the trends going forward? How much housing, how much affordable housing [is there]? At what level do we need to create [affordable housing] every single year for the next ten years to reach our goals?
  • Our universities have to house more of their students on campus.
  • We have to look at Airbnb. What’s the impact that they’re having when you’re taking units off the market?
  • We look at how to look at source of income discrimination. Providence just passed source of income legislation. We’re proud of that but there’s a bill at the State House – We need to make this statewide so that landlords outside Providence can’t continue to discriminate.
  • We’re also in the process of creating a housing trust fund so every developer in the city that gets a generous TSA, a certain percentage of that has to go towards supporting the affordable housing trust fund so that we can invest in the creation of new affordable housing units.
  • We have to continue to attack the abandoned properties. For the past three three and a half years we’ve addressed 600 abandoned properties. We still have about 250.
  • We have to look at increasing the density allowed through our zoning ordinance, perhaps even eliminating parking requirements so that landlords can build more housing in the same amount of space.

“Providence has seen so much progress right now,” said Elorza, “but if the progress that we continue to see is the progress that we’re seeing in Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Nashville, in a way that pushes out our existing residents, well that’s not the progress that we want to see here in Providence.”

“Aside from this source of income one particular issue… is the sealing eviction records,” said Representtaive Maldonado. “Right now, once an eviction complaint has been filed, [tenants] who seek to look for an apartment elsewhere, that record is kept open for our landlords to basically search and find out there’s a case, which then allows them to say, ‘I’m not going to rent to this individual because of this ongoing case,’ without knowing the facts. This particular policy would seal that at the moment while it’s in process allowing the case to be vetted and if it were to go in favor of the defendant then it would be sealed and not open to the public.

The House of Representatives have “an ongoing affordable housing commission that I brought to light, after several years it left in the shadows.” Maldonado restarted to commission to consider the low to moderate income housing act “where cities and towns have to meet a 10 percent mark when only 5 out of 39 municipalities have met that 10 percent.”

“There’s some pretty basic things that would need to change in order to address the issues that we’re all talking about,” said Jennifer Wood. “The first and foremost issue is to decide that housing is right. If we as a society make that decision, if we decide housing is a basic human right, it’s needed for human survival, then we actually as a nation have solved this problem.”

Other ideas Wood mentioned were:

  • Right to counsel in Housing Courts;
  • Ensuring that there is no discrimination based on source of income;
  • Not letting people be blacklisted because they’ve gone to court to hold their landlord accountable

“Without these changes lawyers representing low-income tenants don’t have the tools that they need,” said Wood. “The question came up: How likely are you to be represented in court if you’re a low-income tenant? We actually know that statistic: 96 percent of low-income tenants are standing in court unrepresented, whereas the vast majority of landlords are represented by counsel.

“These legislative tools won’t be meaningful for individuals who have to go into court on their own without information and guidance about how to assert those rights, continued Wood. “That’s the first layer, but that really doesn’t get to the problem of a lack of affordable housing and a lack of inventory that is affordable.”

What is also needed, said Wood is “a meaningful government subsidy for those who simply do not have the income to buy private market housing no matter what that cost might be.”

“I think holding landlords responsible, making sure that they understand that falling windows [are] not acceptable, that no heat in the winter is not acceptable,” said DeeDee Williams. “We need more than just a landlord tenant handbook: We need somebody that’s going to hold them accountable.

“If you’re coming into our state and you are buying property in our state and you want to rent that property, then there’s going to be some kind of accountability that you’re going to have to have,” continued Williams. “We have to create that accountability for those landlords because right now we don’t have that. That’s why we have windows falling in on people that’s why we have property that is falling apart and people are paying high prices to live in a mess and that’s unacceptable.”

“As I mentioned before the film, Signs of Providence has put together an online resource looking specifically at the case of evictions and highlighting a whole bunch of policy reforms,” said Dupuy d’Angeac. “Some of them, like a right to counsel would probably be a little more expensive but some of them don’t cost any money at all.

“One of the first [ideas] is just access to information. People get an eviction notice on their door, which is really public and makes them vulnerable, but included in that eviction notice there’s no information about what the resources are, what are my rights, where do I go from here. It’s just show up to court.”

The notices are in English only, noted Dupuy d’Angeac, which is a burden for non-English speaking residents.

A question from the audience. ” I was wondering if there’s any way that we could use [abandoned] houses, refurbish them somehow? The State or the City or an organization or nonprofit or something could take over [and] renovate the houses for nothing. We have an organization that will do that.”

“I’m happy to report that at the number of abandoned properties is now down to about 265 in the City and so through changes in policies basically trying every possible strategy and using all the tools in our toolkit and we’ve addressed about 600 abandoned properties over the past four years,” said Mayor Elorza.

“We’re converting as many as possible into affordable housing. We’re also working with small contractors in the community, oftentimes women and minority-owned businesses. We’re trying to put these into the hands of people who will live there and take care of them so that they can build up equity and be part of the progress of the entire community.”

Madonna Trottier was asked why it took so long for her to find a new place to live.

“Everywhere I went, Jessica, the landlord, had gotten to them and told them I was a miserable tenant and that I had called the housing authority on them,” said Trottier. “Now it’s on my record, at the court. I don’t know how it got on my record because I never went before the judge. It went with two stupid lawyers talking over in the corner and then they come back and said, ‘That’s it. you’re out.’

The place Trottier lives in now is owned by a person she has known for years. It’s difficult. There are no drugstores nearby, the family currently has no car and the bus stop is a thirty minute walk.

“Providence, Rhode Island needs rent control,” said Terri Wright, who is with DARE‘s Tenants and Homeowners Association. “If we had it, the Trottiers would have never been in the situation they were in.”

“Real estate people,” said Madonna Trottier, “want $75 just to look at your papers. But you don’t get that $75 back.”

Malchus Mills, co-chair at DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality) asked Mayor Elorza about the process of reclaiming abandoned properties in Providence.

Last words from the panelists:

“I really feel like it’s really sad that you’re still not in safe housing,” said Williams to the Trottier family. “You’re still not safe and I feel like we need to do something about… You have fallen through too many gaps already and so that’s not okay so for me… I’d like to fill out some applications with you…”

“I really think it’s a question of changing the mentality, accepting that housing is our right and then rebuilding the system around that premise,” said Jennifer Wood. “I know that we have the ability to do it I know that with the sufficient will and people working on it in a systematic way, we would be able to make that change.”

“We have a large number of representatives in the General Assembly that need to be educated on this issue,” said Representative Maldonado. She encouraged audience members to reach out to their state representatives about the source of income legislation and sealing court records for tenants.

“I think back to the legal services work,” said Elorza. “I would love to see this right to counsel become a reality. I know that other cities have done it across the United States. It’s certainly something that we can afford especially if you remember the human cost associated with not providing i. It’s certainly something that we need to invest in.”

For some people,” said Stephen Tobin. “Tomorrow is already here. We have to stand up and put an end to this now. We just have to stand up and say never again.”

“I like when the rent’s controlled,” said Madonna Trottier, to applause. “My son and I have gone through Hell, and I wouldn’t see anyone go through it.”

“We need a right to counsel. We need rent control,” said Oscar Dupuy d’Angeac. Turning to Madonna Trottier and Stephen Tobin, he continued, “I want to thank the two of you for being up here on the stage and continuing to share your story.”

“There is a gofundme page online for Stephen and Madonna,” said Dupuy d’Angeac. “The goal at this point is to get a car so that Steven can go to work and so they can leave their house which is out like half an hour in the countryside, it’s like a 30 minute walk from the bus.”

“This is one of those situations where it’s not like a disease we don’t
know how to cure,” said Reverend Anderson in her closing. “This is something we know how to fix.”

I covered some of the Trottier’s story here:

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Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.