Providence pledges $1 million for COVID-19 eviction defense, rental assistance

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — With pandemic-related eviction cases set to be heard again soon in Rhode Island courts, the city of Providence is pledging roughly $1 million to provide legal defense for tenants who have lost income due to COVID-19, and also help with rental payments.

The new program is being funded mainly through federal grants issued to Providence through the CARES Act, with some additional funds available from the city’s Housing Trust Fund.

“Through this pandemic many tenants have fallen behind on their rental payments and that’s what has caused their eviction,” Mayor Jorge Elorza said in a news conference over Zoom on Tuesday.

The program will provide both rental assistance for those who have fallen behind as a result of the pandemic, along with legal help if landlords have started eviction proceedings. The program is in addition to the statewide Housing Help RI program, which is providing funds for tenants to pay back rent.

Like the state program, the Providence funds for emergency housing aid will be administered through Crossroads Rhode Island. Those who need eviction defense will be connected to Rhode Island Legal Services and the Rhode Island Center for Justice for legal help. Only Providence residents will be eligible for the legal assistance.

“The only proven solution to homelessness is housing,” said Karen Santilli, the president and CEO of Crossroads.

Elorza said the ultimate goal is to get to “universal eviction defense” in the city, and more money could be pledged toward the effort, with a goal to reduce the number of people becoming homeless due to eviction.

“I’ve seen that having an attorney with you in court or having an attorney to advise you makes all the difference in the world,” Elorza said, noting that he did eviction work after law school.

Rhode Island courts started hearing eviction cases again on June 2, but started with cases that were filed prior to March 17, before the pandemic wreaked havoc on the job market. Evictions related to the pandemic will begin to be heard in July.

Since there was a statewide moratorium on eviction filings from mid-March until June 2, it’s not clear how many pandemic-related evictions may be coming. But so far since June 2, 333 residential evictions have been filed for non-payment of rent, according to a spokesperson for the Rhode Island Courts. Another 87 evictions have been filed in June for reasons other than non-payment of rent, and 29 commercial property evictions have been filed.

Prior to the pandemic about 2,700 evictions were filed each year in Providence, according to the city.

The program will be paid for with $769,756 worth of Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) and $170,000 in Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) from the CARES Act. Another $300,000 from the Providence Housing Trust Fund will also be available for eviction defense based on need, according to a spokesperson. (That fund currently has $2.6 million in it.)

To be eligible for the program, residents must have lived in Rhode Island for a year, demonstrate a loss of income due to COVID-19, and earn at or below 80% of the area median income, which is $48,750 for an individual in Providence, $55,700 for a couple and $69,600 for a family of four.

Those who qualify can apply through the state’s Housing Help RI portal, and Providence residents who indicate they have received an eviction notice they will be referred to the legal assistance in addition to rental help.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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