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A Closed Door: The eviction moratorium expired, and people aren’t getting relief fast enough

The nationwide eviction moratorium expired last month, leaving thousands of Rhode Islanders at risk for becoming homeless. The moratorium, issued early in the pandemic by the CDC, halted landlords from forcibly evicting tenants until the protection expired. Congress appropriated billions of dollars meant for rental assistance, but only a fraction of the money has made it into the hands of those who need it.

State leaders announced Rent Relief RI in late April, a program designed to distribute the approximately $450 million Rhode Island has received in federal funds for rental assistance, but rollout has been slow. As of the latest data from the program’s administrator, RI Housing, only 1,284 applications have been approved, representing $8.1 million of the $450 million the state received in rental assistance. A technological snafu with the online portal meant RI Housing couldn’t start processing completed applications until mid-May. With 130 people working every day to process applications from people applying to receive money to pay their back rent, money for three months of future rent or money to pay utilities, the slowdown comes down to good old fashioned bureaucracy. 

“We need landlords and tenants to provide documentation and it takes more than you would think to get that done,” said Christine Hunsinger, chief strategy and innovation officer for RI Housing.

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Rhode Island is facing a possible wave of evictions like the system has never seen.

“The wave we’re likely to see will put a lot of stress on the courts, on legal services, on partners we deal with,” said Steven Flores, director of the Housing Law Center at Rhode Island Legal Services (RILS). “It could be a dire situation that leads to an unprecedented amount of homelessness.” Flores’ team at RILS is on the front lines of the current eviction crisis, and demand for their services is increasing. In a given year, they deal with roughly 1,300 matters, helping with foreclosure defense for homeowners and eviction defense for low-income Rhode Islanders in subsidized and private housing. As the end of the moratorium crept closer, the volume of incoming calls for assistance is the busiest the team has ever seen.

“I think people are realizing that the moratorium is about to end, and they are bracing themselves for what could be a very scary situation,” said Flores. A typical year will see around 8,400 eviction cases filed in the state courts every year. There is no real estimate locally of how many Rhode Islanders are behind on their rent and how many are in danger of being evicted. Flores estimates it to be in the thousands.

A nationwide study released last week by the healthcare nonprofit Surgo Ventures broke down county by county how many renters owe rent, and the average amount of back rent they owe. Across Rhode Island’s five counties, between 8.3% and 12.7% of renters owe back rent. The average rent owed also varies, from a low average of $3,201 in Providence County, to a high of $4,387 in Newport and Bristol counties. 

Either a landlord or tenant can apply for rent relief, but both parties have to complete documentation. Tenants have to attest and demonstrate hardship due to COVID, that they meet the income requirements, that they can demonstrate housing instability or homelessness if evicted. RI Housing has ensured that for each attestation, there are multiple documents a tenant can provide. Documents like last year’s 1040 tax form, a letter from SNAP, a past due utility bill or any evidence that person is behind on their rent.

Landlords have to provide documentation on their end, too. They have to be able to verify they own the property, bank account information so the agency can wire the money, and confirmation of what the tenant owes in back rent. If a landlord agrees to receiving assistance, they are bound not to evict the tenant. The application process has been trimmed down to 21 days from initial application to final decision. Even with the moratorium lifted this week, courts schedule out hearing dates a few weeks in advance, giving them some breathing room to receive rental assistance.

“What we need is a little time so that money can flow to the people who need it,” said Flores. “It’s a valuable form of landlord assistance. With a little bit of patience, landlords can be made whole.”

As of July 30, 4,211 applications are still in progress, with 930 ready for final approval, and 595 applications have been denied or are being appealed. The total amount of money requested is $40 million, and the average assistance request is just $5,100. Providence represents about a third of all applications (412), with Pawtucket and Woonsocket having 134 and 103 respectively. 

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