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Low-income housing agency SWAP tried to evict tenants during pandemic

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A Providence District Court judge said he was “not happy” a nonprofit organization with a mission to help low-income tenants and revitalize neighborhoods filed several evictions during the COVID-19 moratorium.

Court records show SWAP, a 45-year-old nonprofit that owns several pieces of rental property in Providence, filed eight evictions involving 14 people in early July when an eviction moratorium in the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was still in effect.

One of SWAP’s evictions involved Marcelino Perez and his disabled child.

“I have to admit that this is one of the sadder cases that I’ve dealt with within my time on this calendar,” Judge Christopher Smith said from the bench during a hearing to dismiss three of the cases.

Perez was $965 behind on his rent, which is $407 a month, according to court documents.

“This case should’ve never been filed. It shouldn’t have been heard,” Smith said from the bench. “No demand letter should’ve been sent. And I’m not happy that a demand letter was sent and ultimately the case was filed.”

On September 4, SWAP attorney Sean O’Leary filed motions to vacate eviction orders in the cases of Perez and two others, including one involving Jacqueline Silverio.

Silverio, who owed close to $3,000, said she lost her job during the pandemic and did not receive her first unemployment check until June.

SWAP’s motion to vacate prompted Smith to dismiss the cases against Silverio, Perez, and Lucrecia Carto, but Silverio said the process caused weeks of stress.

“I suffer from depression. I haven’t slept,” Silverio said. “It’s been horrible. It’s been a very hard two months.”

SWAP executive director Carla DeStefano said the properties in question “did not qualify under all the CARES Act” eviction protection requirements.

“We did not want to argue with the judge,” DeStefano said. “It is something of a technicality.”

But several attorneys who specialize in evictions insisted the law is clear. Landlords with federally backed mortgages were not allowed to even take the first step in the eviction process by mailing five-day demand letters for back rent.

Court records indicate SWAP sent letters to all eight tenants, and O’Leary signed the affidavits in each of the cases stating the properties were not covered by the CARES Act.

In the documents, O’Leary indicated he based his conclusion on “communications with” SWAP property management.

“Ultimately, this information turned out to be inaccurate,” Smith said, referring to the three cases that were vacated.

From the bench, Smith said while three of SWAP’s filings initially led to eviction orders, the court relies on the accuracy of the affidavits when deciding a case.

The five other cases were voluntarily dismissed, according to court records. DeStefano said those tenants paid their back rent.

But a statement by Smith to Silverio about the payment agreement she made with SWAP indicates the other agreements may not have been required.

“You should not have had to enter into that or contemplated that,” Smith said, referring to Silverio’s payment agreement. “Because, under the protection of the CARES Act, this case shouldn’t have been filed.”

Silverio said after she was initially evicted, she was not sure where to confirm whether her apartment was protected by the CARES Act, but she added that she trusted that SWAP knew the law.

“They are supposed to be helping people with low income,” Silverio said. “So they should be keeping up with the law and not make people go through this. It’s not necessary.”

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.

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

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