PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. House of Representatives on Thursday voted to ban rental application fees, which housing advocates argue are a significant burden on tenants looking for apartments.
The legislation, which was sponsored by Pawtucket Rep. Cherie Cruz and is part of House Speaker Joe Shekarchi’s housing package, was approved in a vote of 70-0 and sent to the Senate for consideration.
While some landlords only charge tenants the cost of background checks, others charge hundreds of dollars just for an application fee, with no guarantee that the prospective tenant will be selected.
Apartment-hunters may have to pay multiple application fees while looking for a place to live, racking up costs before they’ve even signed a lease, Cruz said.
“Eliminating these burdensome fees will help our struggling residents and families during their already frustrating pursuit of housing, and a step in the right direction in leveling the playing field in our state,” Cruz said in a statement after the vote.
The bill would still allow landlords to charge tenants the “actual cost” of a criminal background and credit check, which is typically around $30 to $35. But the legislation was amended shortly before passage to allow tenants to provide their own credit and background check to the landlord in order to avoid that fee.
If the landlord charges the tenant the fee for a background check or credit report, they would have to give the applicant a copy of those reports.
If approved by the Senate and signed into law by Gov. Dan McKee, the ban on application fees would go into effect Jan. 1, 2024.
“We are thrilled that the House has moved to eliminate rental application fees,” said Shana Crandell with Reclaim RI, which has helped organize tenant groups. “These fees bankrupt working-class Rhode Islanders already struggling to find an affordable and safe place to live.”
Crandell said the progressive group is also calling for other housing reforms, including creating a lead-safe rental registry, implementing a state housing developer, and allowing eviction records to be sealed.
Dozens of renters testified in favor of banning application fees at a hearing last month, pointing out that prospective renters often have to apply to multiple units before securing an apartment.
Several landlords testified against the bill or asked for changes, arguing they should at least be able to recoup their costs to screen a tenant.
“It’s strictly a pass-through cost that we have,” said Christopher Bicho. “I do believe there should be a cap,” he said, acknowledging that some landlords overcharge on application fees.
“We should be reimbursed for our fees to vet a prospective tenant,” said Carol O’Donnell with the Rhode Island Coalition of Housing Providers, who said she was in favor of the bill with modifications. “Application fees should not be a money maker for housing providers.”
The House bill will now be sent to the Senate, which is already considering two bills related to rental application fees. One bill introduced by Sen. Melissa Murray would ban application fees, while another proposed by Sen. Mark McKenney would limit application fees to a maximum of 10% of the cost of one-month’s rent.
For the median rental price in Providence, pegged at $2,100 according to Zillow, that would mean an application fee of $210.
Those bills “along with the House proposal will go through the hearing process,” said Daniel Kittredge, a spokesperson for Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. “President Ruggerio will evaluate the proposals based on that process.”
Gov. Dan McKee’s office did not respond to a request for comment on banning rental application fees.