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Rhode Island’s slow and nonexistent action on rental and housing assistance is cruel



“…tens of thousands of Rhode Island families face the specter of economic ruination and homelessness. But at least they know when hairdressers, restaurants and churches will reopen.

With District Court scheduled to resume in Rhode Island on June 1, evictions, at least those filed before courts closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will resume. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders have been or will be unable to make rent between April and July and, in addition to being a humanitarian crisis, this could destabilize the housing market.

When the courts announced their plans to reopen, they noted that a “District Court work group” has been “developing protocols over the past several weeks, with a number of stakeholders taking part.” Who are the “stakeholders” in this work group? Not tenants, who are facing the prospect of not being able to make their rental payments, or landlords, who are facing foreclosure if they are unable to make their mortgage payments.

UpriseRI asked Craig Berke, Director of Community Outreach and Public Relations at the Rhode Island Judiciary “What groups, specifically, are represented as stakeholders in this District Court work group? When and how often has this group met, and are these meetings or documentation of the meetings available to the public?”

Berke replied that “the ad hoc working group was made of District Court judges, District Court staff and attorneys who practice on the eviction calendars, for the purpose of providing work product to advise the Chief Judge of the District Court to develop protocols going forward. These meetings began on April 30 and have occurred twice weekly via telephone or video conference. They were not public. I would expect that any protocol that arises from these sessions would be made public in the form of an administrative order.”

The lack of actual stakeholders on the District Court Work Group compelled me to ask Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, for a second time, why she has not issued an executive order placing a moratorium on evictions, as 17 other states have done. Governor Raimondo did not answer the question. Instead, she said,

“Thank you for asking that question. I had announced two weeks ago or sometime ago a fund to help folks pay for rent. That is been depleted and we are going to replenish that. Additionally, I’m in discussion with the courts around how we can work with them to provide a combination of financial support out of our stimulus funds and also a mediated solution because I want to do better than just allowing people to get through June. I want them to have a longer term solution. I expect to be back out Tuesday or Wednesday with more details around that.”

The “fund to help folks pay for rent” mentioned by Governor Raimondo had 1.5 million in CARES Act dollars placed in it. Other states of a similar population size, have invested 30 times that amount. Montana has a $50 million fund, for instance.

How many more CARES Act dollars will be put in the Rhode Island fund to help folks pay for rent?

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“Millions of dollars,” said Governor Raimondo. “But I’ll come back to you Tuesday.”

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Rhode Island families face the specter of economic ruination and homelessness. But at least they know when hairdressers, restaurants and churches will reopen.

About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.