Health Care

New eviction defense program will provide free legal services to low-income tenants

The program will assist tenants through the support of attorney advocates and law students, access to a tenant help desk located in the Sixth District Housing Court in Providence, and increased community supports through the DARE Tenant and Homeowner Association.

August 24, 2022, 4:55 pm

By Steve Ahlquist

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza announced a new Providence Eviction Defense program Wednesday morning, funded by Providence’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars and managed by Rhode Island Legal Services. Through this program, Rhode Island Legal Services, in partnership with the Rhode Island Center for Justice, Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) and HousingWorks RI, will provide qualified low-income Providence residents with legal defense services in housing court to prevent eviction.

“As a former eviction defense attorney, I have seen firsthand the difference having a lawyer can make in someone sleeping with a roof over their head or on the street,” said Mayor Elorza. “I am happy to be building on the prior successes of our eviction defense work, especially in the midst of our state’s current housing crisis, to help our city’s most vulnerable residents to stay in their homes and have access to the resources they need.”

For more information about this program, contact Rhode Island Legal Services at (401) 274-2652, or visit the Tenant Help Desk in the Sixth District Housing Court in Providence.

The Eviction Defense program will operate for a period of one year, funded by $600,000 of ARPA funding, and will provide services to Providence residents who earn 65% or less of the Area Median Income or who live in a Providence qualified census tract. The program will assist tenants through the support of attorney advocates and law students, access to a tenant help desk located in the Sixth District Housing Court in Providence, and increased community supports through the DARE Tenant and Homeowner Association, which provides outreach to at-risk families and uses bilingual canvassers for outreach in Providence’s low-income neighborhoods to address the root causes of homelessness. HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University will oversee the data analysis, evaluation and reporting components of the eviction defense program.

“Having access to an attorney for an eviction or any type of housing situation should be a right. Housing should be a human right,” said Councilmember Nirva LaFortune (Ward 3), who is running for Mayor of Providence.

“There’s no question that families continue to fall behind and have been unable to keep up with rising rents throughout the city,” said Councilmember Mary Kay Harris (Ward 11). “This eviction defense program will provide more breathing room for tenants, up to another year of much needed assistance. It’s important for tenants facing eviction to have options and this program will give them the tools needed to legally negotiate and come to a compromise with landlords.”

“The overwhelming majority of tenants facing eviction do so without legal help, and landlords almost always have an attorney,” said attorney Steven Flores of Rhode Island Legal Services. “The tenant help desk is a group effort intended to shift that lopsided power imbalance. Rhode Island Legal Services is proud to be the lead partner with the City of Providence for continuing this important work into next year, which simply could not be done without the tireless efforts of each partner, including Rhode Island Center for Justice and the Pro Bono Collaborative at Roger Williams University School of Law. Together, we have assisted nearly 100 families a month through the help desk, which is a critical first step towards creating a more level playing field.”

“We know that landlords have right, tenants have rights, but let’s be fair,” said Brenda Clement, Director of HousingWorks RI. “We’re all neighbors together. We need to work together to make sure that we can address the issues and try to get people housed safely, if we can…”

“When we rely on the market to provide housing for folks, this is the result,” said Christopher Samih-Rotondo, Interim Director of DARE. “It has been the result for centuries. So this investment, in trying to prevent that and try to forestall some of the immediate impacts and look to the future, is long overdue.”

“Every day people are getting evicted,” said Jordan Mickman, Staff Attorney for the Rhode Island Center for Justice. “They have legal defenses: Their children have been poisoned, their health has been compromised, the landlords have not followed the law – But it’s on the defendants to assert their rights.

“Our clients show up in court oftentimes under extreme pressure – Trying to get to work. Trying to get their kids to school. Trying to get to medical appointments. And they need to get out of that courthouse and away from the building as quickly as they can. The stress and anxiety it creates is too much or them to handle.

“As lawyers, I like to think that we are human shields. We step-in front of the anxiety-inducing terror from the process… We can answer their questions… and sometimes just that two-minute conversation is enough…”

The City of Providence launched a similar program in June 2020, at the height of COVID-19 pandemic, funded by the CARES Act and the Providence Housing Trust. The Collaborative Housing Program used $1 million to help families with eviction defense and rent relief, and was operated by Rhode Island Legal Services, Crossroads Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Center for Justice. From 2020 to 2021, the Collaborative provided legal services to 775 families facing eviction. The new program, said Attorney Flores, may help as many as 1300 people.