Health Care

A Step Towards Housing Justice: Rhode Island Expands Legal Aid for Tenants Facing Eviction

Rhode Island’s House Judiciary Committee considers H-6129, a bill providing legal representation for tenants in eviction proceedings. A $3.1 million contract has been awarded to Rhode Island Legal Services to administer this program temporarily, but the passage of the bill is crucial for a more permanent solution.

April 26, 2023, 12:20 pm

By Steve Ahlquist

Rhode Island’s House Judiciary Committee took up a series of Housing bills last night, including H-6129 from Representative Cherie Cruz (Democrat, District 58, Pawtucket) that would provide legal representation for tenants in eviction proceedings.

Today, Rhode Island’s Department of Housing announced that it has awarded a $3.1 million contract to Rhode Island Legal Services (RILS), a nonprofit law firm specializing in providing free services to low-income individuals and families with civil legal problems, to administer the new program. RILS, in partnership with subcontractors the Rhode Island Center for Justice, Direct Action for Rights and Equality, and HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University, will provide housing-related legal services to tenants whose household income is no more than 80% Area Median Income.

It should be noted that without the passage of a bill like the one proposed by Representative Cruz, low-income tenants in Rhode Island only have access to a lawyer, but not the right to a lawyer under state law. The $3.1 million awarded to RILS is supported by the State’s allocation of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, and is therefore only a temporary solution. Without action from the state, this program might end when the federal funds are gone.

People who are seeking help with legal matters requiring an attorney should reach out to Rhode Island Legal Services at 800-662-5034.

“I’ve witnessed first hand the insurmountable task of Rhode Island Legal Services at their help desk. I remember a time before the help desk was there and the hopelessness of people when they faced eviction,” said Representative Cruz, who added that the complexities of tenant law “are things for attorneys, not tenants, especially for something so important and so detrimental to one’s health and well-being as housing…”

The ACLU issued a report last year, “No Eviction without Representation” that found that currently, across the United States, three states and 15 cities guarantee tenants a right to counsel in eviction court. The reports says,

In New York City, the right to counsel has meant that 84 percent of represented renters facing eviction have remained in their homes. In Cleveland, the right to counsel program has helped 93 percent of represented renters avoid an eviction judgment or an involuntary move, and 83 percent of the program’s clients whose goal was to secure rental assistance were able to do so. And in various studies estimating the costs and benefits of a right to counsel, cities and states have been projected to see significant net savings from the program by reducing the costs associated with eviction. Just one example is a study on the potential cost savings of enacting a right to counsel in Massachusetts, which found that such a program would result in an overall estimated cost savings of $36.73 million annually, providing a return of approximately $2.40 for every one dollar spent on full legal representation in eviction cases. And in a recent analysis of Cleveland’s right to counsel, the estimated net savings to Cleveland and Cuyahoga County were approximately $1.8 to $1.9 million.

The services RILS provides, and will provide in an expanded capacity now that the Governor has awarded them extra money, include legal representation in eviction cases and mediations with landlords, case management and counseling related to housing stability, among other activities.

“All Rhode Islanders deserve fair and equitable opportunities to secure and maintain safe, affordable housing,” said Governor McKee in a statement. “As we continue to make both immediate investments in our statewide shelter capacity and long-term investments in permanent housing, this program aims to prevent homelessness by providing at-risk individuals and families with the legal resources they need to stay in their homes.”

“Providing access to legal counsel is an effective way to reduce evictions, helping to prevent homelessness for individuals and families,” said Secretary of Housing Stefan Pryor. “We are grateful to Rhode Island Legal Services and their partners for undertaking this important work.”

“This is an unprecedented investment in housing stability for Rhode Islanders,” said Steven Flores, the Director of RILS Housing Law Center. “It will allow RILS and its partners to offer a range of legal help to thousands more low-income Rhode Islanders as they struggle to stay safely housed or avoid disruptive displacements, which can push families to the breaking point. The services will ultimately benefit all Rhode Islanders in the long run because they will reduce the costs for emergency services, reduce job losses due to homelessness, and facilitate more stable communities.”

People who are seeking help with legal matters requiring an attorney should reach out to Rhode Island Legal Services at 800-662-5034.

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