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‘A matter of life and death’: The next crisis facing Rhode Island is evictions

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When Gov. Gina Raimondo announced a new publicly funded program to help people pay past-due rent on May 4, more than 800 people applied in less than a day.

With qualifying households eligible for up to $5,000 each, it would have cost about $4.1 million to cover the maximum amount needed for those initial applicants — three times more than the $1.5 million the state initially allocated for the program.

Fast-forward more than a month and the state has announced an additional $5 million for families grappling with rent payments. But the number of applicants has soared to more than 4,600 as of Monday, meaning demand is easily outpacing supply.

“A lot of people are scared and worried because they’re behind in their rent,” said Karen Santilli, executive director of Crossroads Rhode Island, which is administering the rental-assistance program.

The growing number of applicants comes as the COVID-19 public health crisis has forced tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders into unemployment, raising concerns among renters, landlords and advocates who predict the joblessness will translate into missed housing payments. And the most at-risk areas are also the places that have been hit hardest by COVID-19.

According to Crossroads data reviewed by Target 12, families living in the Pawtucket and Providence ZIP codes of 02860, 02907, 02908 and 02909 filed the most applications for rental assistance since May 2. Those same four ZIP codes currently have the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island, representing nearly 40% of the statewide total — despite the people living there only representing about 15% of the statewide population.

And the housing problem is expected to worsen.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston last month released a report estimating 9% to 13% of New England renters are at risk of not making housing payments, even with unemployment benefits and the extra $600 per week made available through the federal CARES Act.

Without that extra money – which is set to expire at the end of next month – the share of renters at risk of missing payments in Rhode Island could increase from 8% to 33% in Rhode Island, representing about 51,000 households, according to the report.

The looming challenge so far has been kept at bay largely because of federal subsidies and temporary moratoriums on evictions. But economists and advocates predict it’s only a matter of time before there’s widespread turmoil in the local and regional housing market.

“Many states have temporarily halted evictions, foreclosures, or both to protect people from losing their homes, at least in the short term,” Boston Fed policy analyst Nicholas Chiumenti wrote in the report. “However, once the economy begins to recover, these households will remain responsible for their unpaid rents and mortgages.”

‘A Band-Aid on an amputated limb’

Rhode Island courts resumed eviction proceedings this month after a temporary moratorium.

And while pandemic-related housing disputes still cannot be heard until July, there were 360 cases left over from before the public health crisis started, including 157 for non-payment.

Kristina Contreras Fox of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless said eviction moratoriums are only short-term solutions that cannot be sustained over the long-term, and they don’t address many of the systemic problems that make it difficult for people to secure safe and reliable housing.

“Rhode Island was already in a housing crisis before COVID,” Fox said. “Now it’s gotten worse.”

As for the new rental-assistance program, Fox said it will likely help some families, but underscored that the $6.5 million isn’t nearly enough to address the rising issue of housing insecurity. Other states are putting far more money into tackling the problem: Montana, which has roughly the same number of residents as Rhode Island, has allocated $50 million to its emergency rental program.

Fox also noted Rhode Island’s program is only available to people struggling with past-due rent, which doesn’t help families that are concerned about having enough money to make future rental payments.

“It’s like trying to put a Band-Aid on an amputated limb,” Fox said. “It’s really, really scary because we’re talking about more than data points in a fact book. This is people’s lives.”

Fox predicts the number of people experiencing homelessness will rise in Rhode Island as a result of the public health crisis, as families without money and options could soon be forced to choose between food and shelter.

Advocates expect the consequences to play out slowly in the coming weeks, but then gain momentum once pandemic-related evictions can be adjudicated again and various federal benefits and protections expire – all before Aug. 1.

Currently, renters are protected in multiple ways, but most of the safeguards are only temporarily.

In addition to the moratorium on pandemic-related evictions, less well-known provisions of the CARES Act prohibit landlords from evicting tenants living in properties covered by federal subsidies, such as Section 8, along with mortgages held by federal financiers, including Fannie May and Freddie Mac.

Paul Ragosta, an attorney who represents landlords of affordable housing units, estimates these protections would prevent upward of 60% of landlords in Rhode Island from evicting tenants.

“I don’t see an immediate onslaught of new [eviction] cases that are unprotected,” Ragosta said, although he acknowledged that could change after the protections end at the end of July.  

‘A matter of life and death’

Despite the looming deadlines, it’s also possible legal proceedings could be delayed beyond Aug 1, depending on how quickly the state relaxes mandates surrounding the public health crisis.

Health and safety requirements, along with social distancing rules, currently make it impossible for judges — who are only hearing cases in Providence and Kent district courts — to handle the 40 to 90 daily eviction cases typically heard before the public health crisis.

The limited time each day means it could take weeks – even months – before new cases come up for a hearing, although those guidelines could change if social distancing mandates are relaxed and the courts decide it’s safe to expand hearings.

Murray Gereboff, who represents landlords of mostly non-subsidized housing, said the long delays could ultimately incentivize more mediation and problem-solving outside of the courthouse, which could help keep people in their homes and landlords earning at least some money.

“If hearings are going to be deferred, to be polite, it’s going to start making more sense to come to some sort of settlement or resolution themselves,” Gereboff said.

Santilli is hopeful the slower pace of legal proceedings will also give nonprofits and other advocacy groups more time to leverage other programs to back-fill the needs of those struggling with rent.  

But she said one major problem facing families who seek affordable housing is an unwillingness from some landlords to rent to people who have either experienced homelessness or have had prior evictions — even if they have housing vouchers that boost monthly rent payments.

In an effort to address this problem, Raimondo last week announced a new public subsidy for landlords who rent units to families with housing vouchers. The state will offer qualifying landlords $2,000 for the first unit and then $500 for each additional units.

The governor called on property owners to make 1,000 units available by July 1 – coinciding with the end of the moratorium on pandemic-related evictions.

“Homelessness in this crisis is a matter of life and death,” Raimondo said.

Signs of the Great Recession

Despite the push to help both renters and landlords, some advocates remain critical that Raimondo hasn’t done enough to protect people at risk of falling behind in their rent.

When pressed on it earlier this month, Raimondo balked at the idea of using more of the $1.25 billion the state received through the CARES Act to expand the rental assistance program beyond the $6.5 million. (The initial $1.5 million came from existing homelessness assisted funds.)

The governor has been clear she wants to reserve that money in case it can be used to close the state’s $600 million deficit projected for the next fiscal year.

But she has nonetheless signaled there could be more coming in terms of help with housing costs.

“This won’t be the last I have to say about rental assistance,” she said when announcing the additional $5 million on May 28. “We need a bigger, more thoughtful solution because there’s going to be many people struggling to pay the rent in the months to come.”

In addition to fueling homelessness, missed rental payments could create other problems for the broader statewide, regional and national economies.

Without money from tenants, landlords could start missing mortgage payments, which could lead to foreclosures and more homelessness. A similar trend emerged after the housing boom-and-bust cycle prior to the financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent Great Recession.

“What I’m anticipating in the coming months is what we saw in 2012, which was an increase in people who owned multifamily homes where the owner was living on one floor and renting out the other two floors,” Santilli said. “They can’t pay their rent, then the landlord can’t pay the mortgage and then the bank forecloses. Now you have three families from one building that are homeless.”  

Even under a best-case scenario, the Boston Fed estimates Rhode Island will likely accrue $21 million in unpaid rental and mortgage payments each month from April through July, which will only accelerate afterward without another stimulus package.

For advocates, including Santilli and Fox, the looming housing housing crisis represents a threat to everyone in the state. But it also serves as another reminder that crises tend to hurt some people more than others.

“COVID is far from being the great equalizer,” Fox said. “It’s exacerbated so many inequalities and disparities and that comes through in stark light when you look at access to basic, secure affordable housing.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him 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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