Urgent Call to Action: RI Senator Tiara Mack’s Rallying Cry for Housing Justice
Senator Tiara Mack is demanding housing justice in Rhode Island’s General Assembly. In the midst of a housing crisis, she’s leading advocates for affordable housing in a statewide call to action. But will the Assembly step up and take notice?
“We are at the end of our legislative session and we need to demand that the Rhode Island General Assembly acts on housing justice this session,” said Senator Tiara Mack (Democrat, District 6, Providence) to a crowd of over 70 people gathered in the Bell Room of the Rhode Island State House. “It is no secret to anyone in this room that we are in the midst of a housing crisis. Tenants are overburdened by rent, paying between 30 and 70 percent of their annual income just on housing alone, leaving little room for paying for medical care, child care, and life’s other basic necessities. It is too hard right now for our families to live inside of our state.”
With only weeks to go in the Rhode Island General Assembly’s 2023 legislative session, advocates for fair, healthy and affordable housing held a State House rally to “End the Housing Crisis” on Tuesday. Though the Speaker of the House and the Senate President have been closing in on some legislation to tackle the issues of housing and homelessness at the margins, major reforms remain elusive. The Rhode Island House of Representatives, for instance, last week finished passing all 14 of Speaker Joseph Shekarchi’s housing bills, but the Senate has yet to take action on them.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday finally took up some major housing bills sponsored by Senators Mack and Meghan Kallman (Democrat, District 15, Pawtucket), many of which have not yet passed the House, but held all bills for further study, a sign that these bills are likely doomed without strong advocacy.
In response to the tepid actions of General Assembly leadership, those attending the rally, representing diverse interests such as Reclaim RI, POWR and Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) demanded immediate and meaningful action.
“There is just one community in Rhode Island where Rhode Islanders who make moderate income can live, and that’s Burrillville,” continued Senator Mack, outlining the kind of policies and legislation needed to match the scale of the problem, many of which are included in a tenant rights package of bills she introduced in April. “Most of our Black and brown and low-income communities live right here in Providence. They cannot afford to live in a city that many have called home for generations.
“30 percent of the United States’ population lives in rental housing, yet we still do don’t have comprehensive laws protecting renters. Instead we have a patchwork of bills that have not been updated since 1986 in our state. It’s been too damn long for Rhode Island residents to have their rights respected and outlined in our General Assembly and in our laws.
“We’re here to fight for a statewide rental registry to make sure that all of our housing stock is quality, safe and affordable; and that we know who owns the unit keeping the families in our state housed.”
“A rental application fee ban: Right now folks are paying hundreds, if not thousands of dollars a year just to fight for a potential space in a unit because our market is currently overburdened. We’re not building enough houses.”
The House has passed a rental application fee ban legislation. The Senate has not. Kallman also has a very interesting transit-oriented development bill that would increase density around existing and future transit hubs.
“Rhode Island could be one of the first states to pass a public developer bill, ensuring that we have quality, affordable homes in our core cities,” continued Senator Mack. The Create Homes Act is sponsored by sponsored by Senator Kallman.
Senator Mack then outlined some of the key provisions of her Tenant Bill of Rights legislation, a collection of ideas that would guarantee for all renters the right to legal counsel in court, the right to habitability, the right to organize, the right of first refusal if the landlord decides to sell the property, the right to equality and freedom from discrimination and the right to be free of eviction without good cause.
Senator Mack spoke more expansively on the Tenant Bill of Rights legislation before the Senate Judiciary Committee here:
“We also need to make sure that this year we seal eviction records. Keeping families housed is a priority in our state. During the Covid pandemic we saw eviction rates decrease to some of the lowest they’ve been in over 30 years. But now, after the eviction moratorium sunset, we’ve seen that kick up over the last month, leaving Rhode Island families on the cusp of homelessness.
“Homelessness and eviction is not just one occurrence. It is a cascade of events that leaves people housing insecure [that stays on their record] for up to seven years, increasing the amount of housing insecurity right here in our state. We need to make sure that in this session we pass comprehensive tenant-focused legislation and seal evictions.
“We need to make sure that we also ban credit report history and criminal background records. No one in our state should be denied housing just because of who they were, how much money they made, or their source of income. We need to have a homes for all guarantee, in Rhode Island, this legislative session.” Similar legislation has been introduced in the House.
“In order to prevent homelessness we also need to ensure the right to counsel for everyone going through eviction court, because, again, eviction is not just and event – it is a cascade of events and consequences leaving our families and our children on the street, right here in our communities with loss of income, lower educational outcomes, and a whole host of other, significantly negative impacts on their health, their housing and their futures,” continued Senator Mack.
“We need to make sure we also have a right to habitability for all of our units, including lead pipe mitigation, improving our infrastructure and protecting all of our families from lead poisoning, because in 2023, lead poisoning should not be a reality for a majority of our families that live in our urban core.”
At the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Senator Mack also introduced S914, which limits annual rent increases to 4%…
…S808 which ensures that security deposits are placed into interest bearing bank accounts with the interest and the full deposit going back to the tenant upon the end of the lease.
…and S365, which mandates landlords to provide a 120-day notice for a rental increase.
Other speakers at the rally included:
- Senator Kallman speaking on her public developer and transit-oriented development bills.
- Crystal Barnaby, who spoke about how being formerly incarcerated keeps on trapped in a cycle of poverty and incarceration.
- Representative Cherie Cruz (Democrat, District 58, Pawtucket)
- Representative June Speakman (Democrat, District 68, Bristol, Warren)
- Tiara Grimm, who has organized with the tenant rights organization POWR against her landlord. See: Rally Against Negligent Providence Landlords Highlights Health Hazards, Calls for Tenant Protections
- Earl, a truck driver and former Pioneer Tenant. See: One of Rhode Island’s worst landlords gets a Sunday wake up call
- Justin Kelly, Business Representative and Political Director from the Painters and Allied Trades in Rhode Island, gave a rousing speech.
- Terri Wright of Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE)
- Yanine Guardia from Reclaim RI
Several members of the public spoke in support of Senator Macks package of bills in the Senate Judiciary hearing.