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‘Nobody should be, for any reason, thrown out into COVID’: Loophole allows RI landlords to evict tenants for nonpayment

Consumer Investigations

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — After having surgery last February, Sharon Perkins tells 12 News she was out of work and unable to pay her rent.

The Pawtucket resident said while she was recovering, her apartment building came under new ownership.

“They wanted to come in and look around,” she said of the company that bought the building. “But because of COVID, because I just had spinal surgery, I was very sick and I was scared. I didn’t want anybody in here.”

Perkins said she has since been evicted and is in the process of moving out. But she’s confused as to why, since she’s not being evicted for her missed payments, and instead for “noncompliance.”

“I applied for something that would help me to pay the back-rent from when they bought the place in March to current, but they didn’t accept it,” she said.

The federal eviction moratorium is supposed to protect tenants from being evicted during the coronavirus pandemic, but R.I. Center for Justice Supervising Attorney Jordan Mickman said landlords have found a loophole around that.

In the moratorium, there is a clause that states landlords can evict tenants for, “violating any other contractual obligation, other than timely payment of rent or similar housing-related payment (including nonpayment or late payment of fees, penalties, or interest).”

The clause makes it possible for landlords to evict for nonpayment reasons.

“If you’re a month-to-month tenant, you can have your lease terminated with 30 days notice at any time for any reason, as long as it’s not a discriminatory reason or retaliatory reason,” Mickman said. 

Mickman said a retaliatory reason, under state law, can include a tenant invoking their legal right to pursue the federal declaration.

“It would be retaliatory to turn around and terminate their tenancy,” he said.

But Rhode Island’s retaliation law has a flaw, according to Mickman.

“[It] expressly states that an eviction is not retaliatory,” he explained. “It says a landlord is allowed to pursue an eviction, not withstanding retaliation, if the tenant hasn’t paid their rent.”

Perkins is not alone. Mickman said his office has been looking into dozens of eviction cases involving the loophole.

“Nobody should be, for any reason, thrown out into COVID,” Perkins said. “They stop the whole world from going to work and everything else, but yet they can throw you in the street.”

The moratorium is expected to expire at the end of the month. Mickman said legislation has already been introduced in the R.I. General Assembly to create a statewide moratorium that would protect renters from being evicted for nonpayment.

A hearing on that legislation has yet to be scheduled.

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