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Editorial & Opinion

Bad Policy Kills



…landlords in our state may lawfully reject a tenant if the tenant receives assistance in paying their rent from non-traditional sources–like alimony, veterans benefits, or Section 8 vouchers.

As the death toll in our country from the deadly COVID-19 pandemic exceeds 100,000, many people have looked to countless factors that have contributed to this horrifying statistic. Notably, people of color are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic as a result of the systemic racism affecting all aspects of our country. Many have asked “what can we do now as we sit at home?” while some in our community have no place to call home where they can keep themselves and their families safe and healthy. As Rhode Island enters Phase 2 of re-opening the economy, more people are thinking about how to dismantle the systems of oppression in our state that have contributed to the staggering number of people of color who have been impacted by COVID-19. We, the members of “Let RI Rent,” have spent the past few months focused on one factor that has been proven time and again to have a direct impact on health–the ability for a person to find, and keep, stable and safe housing. 

Before the start of this pandemic, Let RI Rent worked with local advocacy groups and progressive legislators to advocate for one, simple, and reasonable idea: money is money and rent is rent. Despite this, landlords in our state may lawfully reject a tenant if the tenant receives assistance in paying their rent from non-traditional sources–like alimony, veterans benefits, or Section 8 vouchers. Tenants who rely on lawful non-employment income are disproportionately disabled, elderly, low-income, families with children, and people of color. 

Many Rhode Islanders that we spoke with were shocked to hear that landlords were lawfully allowed to engaged in this type of insidious discrimination–a type of discrimination that is not as overt as some of the blatant oppression and violence we have seen police officers exact on communities of color, but the type that allows landlords to use the economic situation of a person to deny that person access to a home–or allows landlords to claim that they are cautious due to economic reasons when they are actually discriminating based on race. Further, many Rhode Islanders were confused as to why landlords would choose to reject a steady stream of rental income from the federal government–one that would be resistant to market fluctuations (like the one we’re in now). 

Our state is certainly not alone in allowing this type of discrimination, but we can join a growing cohort of states, including our New England neighbors, to pass legislation that is currently sitting in the Rhode Island House of Representatives. The Senate has already passed its version of the bill (as it has for years), but the bill has never even been allowed to proceed for a vote within the House. If the House bill had been heard and passed at any point over the past few years in which it was introduced, there would be one less hurdle for families, many of whom have wage earners who work in essential jobs, to find safe and stable housing. 

The fact that housing stability can lead to safer and healthier communities might be a logical leap for some; a recent study by Boston Medical Center in 2018 explains that those families who were housing insecure were also associated with “increased odds of adverse health outcomes.” Boston Medical Center. (2018, January 22). Housing instability negatively affects the health of children and caregivers: New research finds one in three low-income renters face housing instability, at greater risk of poor health and other hardships. See here and here.

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In our current pandemic-facing society, we see these “increased odds of adverse health outcomes” every day as we see the nation’s death toll rising–and rising disproportionately in communities of color. 

While we have no data to show that if our legislature passed this simple, anti-discrimination bill when it was first introduced that it would have saved a single life, we also would not be faced with the horrifying question of “what if?” What if we had established good policies that would provide for stability when our waters were calm so that we could brave the storm more easily together? What if we realized that good policies are good policies, no matter when they’re put in place, because even if we don’t need them now, we may need them tomorrow? What if we’re continuing to ignore policies and policy advocates that could change our present so that in our future we can withstand the next storm, pandemic, or who knows what else? What if? 

As people around the country continue to ask “what can I do to help save lives during this pandemic while I’m at home?” we, the members of Let RI Rent, ask that every person who reads this piece to email, call, or write to their state representative and ask that H7594 be heard and passed on the House floor.

About the Author

The Let RI Rent team is made up of the following members: Cordelia Brady, Cheyenne Cazeault, Mary Ellen Lynch, Raquél Lynn Pérez, Abeer Khatana, Jeronima Nix, Etie-Lee Schaub, Lani Willmar, and Tiffany Word. Please reach out and follow us at @letrirent on all social media platforms. If you have any questions about this issue or bill, or want to share your own experience as either a renter or landlord, please don’t hesitate to email us