“During a global pandemic I don’t think people should be kicked out on the street, and I don’t think people should have to pay rent debt,” says Olivia B., an organizer with Tenant Network Rhode Island (TNRI). This new community organization focuses on tenants’ rights and provides mutual aid for households struggling to pay housing costs. “I’m a service industry worker, and as things progressed through March I saw the way things were going,” says Olivia. “I met some other local renters that were interested in some of the same things, so we decided to start up this new tenant network.”
The Ocean State is in the throes of a housing crisis, aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. HousingWorks RI reported in November more than 140,000 Rhode Island households were spending more than 30% of their take home pay on rent or mortgages. The state’s jobless rate reached all-time highs and the RI Department of Labor is seeing record-breaking claims of Unemployment Insurance. Twenty percent of tenants nationwide missed May’s rent and in June, tenants are facing a fiscal cliff.
TNRI works to help fellow tenants impacted by the crisis. “What we’ve been doing so far is helping anybody that is immediately in need,”says Olivia. “We’ve been trying to help them find rent assistance, any type of resources… one of the other things we’re trying to do is find people who share the same landlord, so they can potentially bargain with their landlord as a unit.” TNRI also engages in direct actions, advocating rent and mortgage forgiveness, and moratoriums on evictions. All the members interviewed for this article stressed housing as a human right.
Olivia explains, “Back in March courts were closed for safety reasons and that made it so evictions couldn’t happen by default. But unlike in other cities, nobody actually passed an eviction moratorium.” Seventeen other states have stopped evictions for the duration of the crisis, and Rhode Island is not among them. Courts, as of this writing, are scheduled to reopen June 1 and TNRI is planning a series of actions to pressure public officials to act. Tomorrow at 1:30pm they are hosting a car parade to Stop Evictions and Cancel Rent/Mortgages that will circle the State House and portions of downtown. The parade will concurrently be livestreamed online.
Social distancing measures present unique problems for activists and organizers. “In some ways it has been challenging,” said Olivia. “Like everybody else, we’ve been using Zoom calls and other communication platforms. There’s been a lot of social media outreach.”
On the federal level, housing relief has not been a priority. Less than 1% of the C.A.R.E.S. Act went directly to housing, and none of that money will help the majority of tenants. Many Americans used the individual stimulus checks and unemployment benefits allotted for rent, however the negative economic impacts from the COVID-19 crisis look to outlast that money. Earlier this month, Governor Gina Raimondo established a $1.5 million fund with federal money. Qualifying tenants can receive a rent relief grant of up to $5,000. The funds, however, can only be used on rent that is already past due. As Steve Alquist reported in UpriseRI last week, “other states of a similar population size have invested 30 times that amount.”
Many of the people who have become involved hope that TNRI grows into something bigger and more permanent. “The direct action we’ve been doing has come out of what we’re hearing when we talk to people,” says Devra Levy, another organizer with the network. “And what we’re hearing is that while there are a lot of programs out there, and people are very grateful for the rental assistance and unemployment and the other benefits that have been put in place, they’re definitely not enough, and they’re definitely not reaching everyone.”
“People need to know that there’s people out there in Rhode Island who are there for them, and see them, and are struggling in the same ways,” says Olivia, “and we can help each other out.”
Tenants in need of assistance, or who want to get involved in organizing, should email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 401-307-1692 or reach out to the group through social media.