Attorney General files lawsuit against notorious Rhode Island slumlord

Allegations include lead poisoning of children, persistent rodent infestations, deterioration of the building structure, cracking walls and windows, and intermittent loss of water and heat, and improperly charged and overcharged late fees on tenants.

Rhode Island News: Attorney General files lawsuit against notorious Rhode Island slumlord

June 6, 2023, 10:40 am

By Steve Ahlquist

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha today announced that the Office has filed a lawsuit against a major Rhode Island rental corporation, and its president, for failing to comply with numerous state rental, lead hazard, and consumer protection laws that have placed the health and safety of hundreds of renters at risk and which constitute unfair market practices.

Photo provided by Attorney General

In the complaint filed in Providence County Superior Court, the Attorney General alleges that Pioneer Investments, L.L.C. and its president, Anurag Sureka, own and operate more than 175 residential rental units across Rhode Island, and routinely ignore lead hazard laws, landlord-tenant laws, housing code regulations, and regularly engage in unfair and deceptive trade practices throughout the state. The result, as alleged, is that Pioneer’s properties fall into disrepair, pose significant health and safety risks, and endanger Rhode Island renters and in particular the children who reside in these properties.

“Today’s action signals that enough is enough when it comes to the alleged misconduct of a major landlord who is placing the health and safety of Rhode Islanders at risk,” said Attorney General Neronha. “Let’s cut right to it – as alleged, profits are being placed over basic human dignity and that cannot stand. In Rhode Island, nearly 500 children are lead poisoned every year. It is preventable, and the toll that these children and we as a community pay is enormous. This Office is committed to stopping the lead poisoning of children, be it through prosecution as in this case, or through proactive legislation. I thank the Department of Health for their partnership and assistance as we aim to end lead poisoning in Rhode Island for good.”

As stated in the complaint, Pioneer tenants affirmed in sworn affidavits the presence of significant lead poisoning hazards, persistent rodent infestations, deterioration of the building structure, cracking walls and windows, and intermittent loss of water and heat in numerous Pioneer properties. A cross-reference of Pioneer properties with RIDOH and municipal code enforcement officials reveal a pattern of violations and failure to adhere to proper lead hazard mitigation and notification and maintenance code compliance. It is further alleged that Pioneer improperly charged and overcharged late fees on tenants, all while profiting unfairly from tenants with limited options in Rhode Island’s historically tight rental market.

Photo provided by Attorney General

According to RIDOH analysis, at least 11 children have had detectable levels of lead, and at least five children have been lead-poisoned while residing in Pioneer’s properties.

“Safe and healthy housing is a key environmental determinant of health,” said Interim Director of Health Utpala Bandy, MD, MPH. “Legal actions to hold landlords accountable are part of Rhode Island’s comprehensive approach to minimizing lead exposures for children, along with lead screenings, referrals for case management, and the identification of lead hazards in homes. We will continue to work with the Rhode Island Attorney General and other partners toward our goal of ensuring that the children in every ZIP code throughout the state live in environments that support healthy development.” 

Attorney General Neronha, as the state’s lead advocate, seeks to protect Rhode Islanders from further lead poisoning and stop unlawful and dangerous housing practices by ordering Pioneer to provide code-compliant, lead-safe housing and complete, truthful lead disclosures to their tenants. Additionally, the Attorney General seeks disgorgement of unjust profits, restitution to tenants harmed by Pioneer’s conduct, and fines and penalties.

The complaint also calls for the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee and report on Pioneer’s compliance with their obligations to assess each property and correct conditions in full compliance with state and federal laws.

Reactions from members of the Pioneer Tenants United, a tenants union, were swift. The tenants were helped in their organizing efforts by Reclaim RI.

  • “When we rented from Pioneer, it was like pulling teeth to get them to fix anything and the apartment had all kinds of problems,” said Pioneer Tenant Danielle Quick. “The wood floors smelled like dog pee when they got wet. There was mold, mildew, and a leak in the bedroom ceiling that forced us to sleep in the living room. When we noticed that there were bugs and mice, they blamed us. There were uncovered electrical outlets. It took them weeks to come deal with anything. When I got hurt and couldn’t work for a few weeks, they tried to evict me after I said I’d be late on a rent payment. But around the same time, the water was shut off because they hadn’t been paying the water bill. We couldn’t shower, we had to drink bottled water, but they didn’t want to take responsibility. That’s why we had to stand up to them and fight back. They can’t just push people around, collect rent, and not hold up their end of the bargain.”
  • “My breaking point was when he tried to evict me after being seven days late for the first time ever, when I had already let him know my kids were in the hospital,” said Melissa Grussi. “Thank god for the Center for Justice being there, I wasn’t evicted. I showed proof of all the failed code inspections and all the pictures to his lawyer, and he shrugged it off. I wasn’t evicted but they put an eviction on my record, raised my rent, and still got Covid relief. They didn’t do anything about the conditions, and that broke me. That was it for me. Once Reclaim came knocking on my door, and I felt listened to and actually valued, that’s when I knew I could stand up and be more than just one voice. This has been the most tormenting and stressful living environment I have ever lived in. It is mental warfare in my head every day coming back to this home knowing it’s not safe but we’re stuck here because he put an eviction on my record. I feel like I’ll be homeless if I continue to talk.”
  • “My last and final winter in my Pioneer apartment, we had no heat for four days,” said Renee Horne. “My 15-year-old dog was freezing on the floor. When someone finally came to fix it, we learned that our furnace was at risk of emitting carbon monoxide and/or catching on fire. We made repeated attempts to get them to address it but they did nothing. We had kids in the house, we knew we had to get out of that apartment before the next winter. When I got a flyer from Reclaim about a meeting, it felt like someone had been listening in on our conversations, because we were so frustrated with everything. My breaking point was at that first meeting when we met the twin babies who had been lead poisoned. When you start affecting children’s health, that’s when I knew I had to fight. In my last conversation with Anurag, he said to me that what I think and say doesn’t matter, because I just sit around all month waiting for my disability check. You know what? You might be right because it’s what WE think and say that matters! PIONEER TENANTS UNITED!! Anurag, your actions of bullying, threatening and your lack of regard for human life finally have consequences. Last and not least, I want to thank the attorney general’s office for listening to our many concerns!”
  • “My wife and I had our babies poisoned by lead paint in an apartment owned by Anurag Sureka,” said Christian Velazquez. “I will keep this blunt: he ruined our kids’ lives. My son cannot speak and express himself because his lead levels are still very elevated a year after we moved out. Three years old and he just screams to tell me he’s hungry or he needs a diaper change. My daughter cannot control her emotions which also is a consequence of lead poisoning. Every morning we look at our beautiful babies and we see what he did to them. The worst part of it all is that when I told him my kids were poisoned he shrugged it off. What kind of human does that? I would at least do anything in my power to follow up and check up on that family. They would start school this coming year but they can’t because they aren’t comfortable being potty trained or eating on their own. These are a few of the many problems we face because of their lead poisoning. We love our babies with our whole hearts. We hate to see them struggle because we know they want to learn. They want to talk to us. He took that away from them. Innocent children! MY CHILDREN! He took my babies’ voices away.”
Tenants and organizers protest Anurag Anurag Sureka

Reclaim Rhode Island reacts:

“Today’s historic prosecution of Pioneer Investments LLC and its owner Anurag Sureka is a testament to the power of tenant organizing,” said Shana Crandell, a Reclaim RI Tenant Organizer. It also speaks to the critical importance of public officials willing to hold slumlords accountable for their rampant violation of the law. Reclaim RI and Pioneer Tenants United have spent the past year knocking the doors of nearly every one of Pioneer’s estimated 300 units in the state. Tenants, suffering from atrocious conditions amid skyrocketing rents, organized together and fought back. Today is a great victory for Pioneer tenants, and for all poor and working-class tenants across Rhode Island.

“This prosecution of a slumlord for widespread violations of the law is unprecedented, at least in recent Rhode Island history. It sends a clear message that no slumlord is above the law—the Attorney General has tenants’ backs. Roughly two dozen Pioneer tenants bravely came forward to tell their stories to the AG. Pioneer tenants also told their stories at rallies and State House hearings, bringing unprecedented awareness to the fact that slumlord abuse is a critical part of this state’s dire housing crisis. Today’s news should be a warning to every negligent, abusive, and predatory landlord in the state that the era of collecting rent for abhorrent conditions is over. 

“It’s now clear that the AG stands ready to crack down on slumlord abuses. But what about other public officials? 

We call on state legislators to take action now. Filing constant evictions against tenants is a commonplace slumlord tactic – including, for Pioneer tenants, in retaliation for organizing. We call on the state legislature to pass legislation now, before this session ends, to allow for tenants to have their eviction records sealed. We also urge the state legislature to pass the legislation proposed by the Attorney General that would, among other things, create a statewide rental registry to ensure that children are not poisoned by lead paint. We also expect the Senate to follow the House and pass legislation banning rental application fees. Next session, we urge legislators to fully protect tenants from the worst slumlord abuses by imposing rent stabilization and stronger protections against eviction.

We call on city councilors and mayors across the state to take action now. Cities and towns across the state have allowed slumlords to violate state minimum housing laws with impunity, sometimes despite the best intentions and sometimes because of absolute indifference. We have seen this first hand time and time again. Pioneer owns properties across Rhode Island, particularly in Pawtucket, Central Falls, West Warwick, and Woonsocket. We applaud Central Falls for their leadership on addressing slumlord conditions and call on all municipalities to work with Reclaim and Pioneer Tenants United to draft a plan to strengthen enforcement of existing laws and also to draft and pass into law new anti-slumlord ordinances. Pioneer is far from an isolated problem. Slumlords are the norm for poor and working-class tenants across Rhode Island.”

In a letter from Pioneer Tenants United and Reclaim RI have sent to the Mayors and City/Town Councilmembers of Rhode Island, there was a demand for the implementation of a series of anti-slumlord measures, including:

  • Accountability: Create a municipal rental registry listing up-to-date lead certificate status, unremediated code violations, and insurance standards. Contract with a debt collector so fines levied on landlords are actually collected and paid into a repairs fund.
  • Housing Security: Require renewable one-year leases (with some exceptions), end evictions without good cause, and enforce the prohibition on retaliation so tenants are free to exercise our right to complain and to organize (R.I. Gen. Laws §34-18-46).
  • Health and Safety: Fund proactive code enforcement. Ensure that the buildings where people live meet minimum housing standards before kids get poisoned and people learn how to live with leaks and no heat.
  • Clean Hands Eviction: If a landlord can’t maintain their properties in accordance with minimum housing standards and lead safety laws, they shouldn’t be allowed to evict people. Tenants should be able to pay rent into escrow until properties are remediated.
    • Note: Slumlords combine the tactics of substandard conditions and constant eviction in order to maximize profits from their “portfolio” of “investments” – at the cost of the wellbeing of the real people who call those investments home.
  • Market Rate? Market Value: Stabilize rent increases and also limit rent when substandard conditions are present. Runaway rents are devastating our communities, and slumlords take advantage of people with no other options to price gouge for substandard apartments. Put an end to this by stabilizing rent and tying it to conditions.

Uprise RI has been following tenant allegations against Pioneer Investments for over a year:

Lead Enforcement Action by Attorney General Neronha:

Lead enforcement has been a priority for Attorney General Neronha. Since the fall of 2021, the Attorney General has filed 19 lawsuits and obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties from landlords who have failed to fully address serious lead violations in properties where children were lead poisoned. As a result of actions by the Office, more than 65 housing units have been remediated following the issuance of intent to sue letters, pre-suit negotiations, and lawsuits.