“I’m working hard on that, figuring out what we can do,” said Governor Raimondo. “I’m worried about it. The courts may or may not reopen, they are still trying to figure that out. I’m working on figuring out more rental assistance, as well as a potential moratorium – we’re in close contact with the District Court on this – so within the next few days, certainly by Monday, I’ll have more to say about it.“
Courts in Rhode Island could reopen as early as next week, which will result in hundreds of Rhode Island families beginning the process of being evicted from their homes. When the courts closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, evictions for nonpayment of rent were on a moratorium of sorts, since without a court order, landlords could not legally evict tenants.
“We had an eviction crisis prior to COVID-19,” said Kristina Contreras Fox, Policy Analyst for the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. “Rhode Island has the highest eviction rate in New England. COVID-19 will only exacerbate this crisis.”
In 2018 the Associated Press reported that, “Rhode Island had the highest eviction rate among New England states in 2016, and Providence’s rate nearly tripled Boston’s.” Providence had an average of more than four evictions every day.
Contreras Fox thinks reopening the Courts and processing evictions will be a disaster, in a number of ways. “It’s not just a tsunami, it’s a tsunami happening in the middle of a Category-5 hurricane. Eviction is one of the leading causes of homelessness. Furthermore, is it even physically safe for people to be in district court? Are they prepared to implement social distancing guidelines and other safeguards meant to stop the spread of coronavirus? The answer is no.”
Unemployment in Rhode Island is at record numbers due to COVID-19. “In this moment, there are thousands of Rhode Islanders worrying about how they will pay rent – last month’s, this month’s and next month’s – because they’ve lost their job or had their hours significantly cut as a result of the COVID pandemic,” said Melina Lodge, Executive Director of the Housing Network of Rhode Island/Community Housing Land Trust. “And beyond that, they are worried about where they’ll go if they are evicted when the court system re-opens and begins processing evictions.”
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Homes RI, a coalition of organizations working to increase the supply of safe, healthy and affordable homes, provided guidance on the usage of federal coronavirus relief funds this week. Their priorities include:
- Emergency rent and mortgage assistance for tenants and homeowners;
- Emergency housing supports to prevent and end homelessness;
- Comprehensive and inclusive outreach; and
- Sustaining support for safe and healthy homes.
“It’s imperative that our state make a significant investment of its CARES Act funding into rental assistance to help stabilize families in this time of crisis,” continued Melina Lodge. “We are seeing other New England states, and states across the nation, recognizing the importance of housing stability and committing tens of millions of dollars of their funds to prioritizing this urgent need and we call on our state’s leadership to make similar investments.”
At Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo‘s daily press briefing, UpriseRI brought up some of these concerns:
UpriseRI: Next week the courts will reopen, and evictions will begin for hundreds of Rhode Islanders. Why don’t we have a state-wide eviction moratorium like our neighbors?
Governor Raimondo: I’m working hard on that, figuring out what we can do. I’m worried about it. The courts may or may not reopen, they are still trying to figure that out. I’m working on figuring out more rental assistance, as well as a potential moratorium – we’re in close contact with the District Court on this – so within the next few days, certainly by Monday, I’ll have more to say about it.
UpriseRI: As for rental assistance, you’ve allocated $1.5 million. Other states with similar populations have allocated 30x that much.
Governor Raimondo: Yeah. No. It’s not enough. That was a beginning, we moved quickly and great credit goes to the Commerce Secretary. He figured out a way to get that done quickly with existing HUD funds – but I agree, we need to do more.
“It is very encouraging to know that the Governor plans to provide significantly more rental assistance in the coming days,” said Jennifer Wood, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice. “We know that thousands of Rhode Islanders, both tenants and landlords, will need this help in order to maintain stable housing and prevent a second surge of illness in our state.
“Meanwhile we face an immediate public health challenge if the court moratorium on hearing eviction cases is not extended. We are very concerned about the public health dangers that the reopening of the courts may pose given the numbers of cases that are already backed up in the system and the high volume that will quickly be filed.”
In a press release, Homes RI laid out some dire numbers:
“Even before the coronavirus, evidence showed that housing is healthcare. And the gap between wages and housing cost was already wide before the pandemic’s economic fallout. The annual income needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment in 2018 was $64,840, more than twice the median renter income in Rhode Island and nearly three-times the annual income of a full-time worker earning minimum wage. The median renter income of $32,361 can not comfortably afford a two-bedroom apartment in any city in Rhode Island. Rhode Island’s Department of Labor and Training has reported 248,000 unemployment claims filed since March 9. Rent was due May 1, and too many already could not pay last month’s rent.”