Landlords request changes to RentReliefRI program to keep it fair, balanced

Local News

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Coalition of Housing Providers is demanding the state make changes to its RentReliefRI program to ensure the process is fair and balanced for both the tenant and the landlord.

Andrew Butler, a property manager for Elmwood Realty, tells 12 News one of his tenants received $12,000 in back-owed rent from the program – but he hasn’t been seen a cent of it.

“He’s choosing to keep the check rather than pay it to the landlord, where it was intended [to go],” Butler explained.

Butler claims the check was supposed to be sent directly to him, but instead it was sent to his tenant.

It’s situations like these that frustrate Keith Fernandes, a spokesperson for the Rhode Island Coalition of Housing Providers.

“Under no circumstances should a tenant get paid any back-owed rent because that’s not what this funding is meant for,” Fernandes said.

Court documents reveal that RentReliefRI processing employees made several attempts to reach Butler, but did not hear back, which is why the check was instead sent to the tenant.

Christine Hunsinger of RI Housing claims the program can’t be changed locally since the U.S. Treasury Department oversees it and enforces the rules.

“We pay the landlords in every instance where they agree to participate,” Hunsinger said. “When we pay the tenant directly, the landlord did not agree to participate.”

Hunsinger said the tenant has seven days after the check clears to pay their landlord any back-owed rent. If the tenant doesn’t pay what they owe, Hunsinger said they will report that person to the U.S. Treasury Department – though not right away.

“We tend to wait a little bit to make sure there isn’t that timing difference,” she explained. “Some of these checks are quite large, and there are different banking regulations that apply to different accounts … it may take up to 10 even 14 days for a check that’s fairly large to clear the account.”

To date, Hunsinger said they’ve received 10 reports of landlords not receiving back-owed rent from their tenants, but most of those cases have involved timing and not the reluctance to pay.

“We work very hard to keep people within the bounds of the program and do what they’re supposed to do,” she said. “Less than 1% of people are not using the funds as intended.”

While Hunsinger said the federal program does help landlords as well, it’s important to remember that it was created with the goal of protecting tenants from being evicted during the pandemic.

In a statement, Sen. Jack Reed said changes can’t be made to the federal program without bipartisan support.

“It’s important to remember that some of this money comes with inflexible Trump-demanded restrictions that can’t be undone without bipartisan cooperation,” he said. “Discussions about increasing flexibility in the program has led to a host of other non-constructive demands that would effectively eliminate the program.”

Since the program launched earlier this year, RentReliefRI has provided thousands of landlords collectively with nearly $50 million rent payments.

12 News reached out to the tenant’s lawyer regarding the situation but has not heard back.

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