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EXPLAINER: Will Rhode Island’s $200M for rent aid be enough?

June 25, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo, housing activists erect a sign in Swampscott, Mass. A federal freeze on most evictions is set to expire soon. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo, housing activists erect a sign in Swampscott, Mass. A federal freeze on most evictions is set to expire soon. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year has been extended from June 30 until July 31. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on their rent.

Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access more than $45 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.

Advocates for tenants say the distribution of the money has been slow and that more time is needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without more time, advocates foresee a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who are behind on their rents.

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As of June 7, roughly 3.2 million people in the U.S. said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.

Here’s the situation in Rhode Island:

WHAT’S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?

The only protection against eviction currently in place in Rhode Island is the federal government’s moratorium. The state never imposed its own ban, though the legal proceedings were effectively halted while state courts were shuttered during the early months of the pandemic, said Brenda Clement, director of Housing Works RI, an advocacy and research group based at Roger Williams University. The Legislature is considering bills that would enact a statewide moratorium, but so far no action has been taken.

WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

Democratic Gov. Daniel McKee launched RentReliefRI this spring using $200 million in federal money. Rhode Island Housing, the state agency overseeing the effort, said it has provided more than 100 families with more than $1 million in assistance to date. More than 2,500 others are in the process of being certified, according to U.S. Sen. Jack Reed’s office. The program helps cover rent and utilities owed back to last April as well as up to three months of upcoming rent. Applicants can receive up to 18 months of assistance. The state also provided a combined $13.5 million to roughly 3,000 households through two other rent-relief programs launched during the pandemic that have since wound down: “HousingHelpRI” and “Safe Harbor.”

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

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Hearings are proceeding in person by appointment, but executing court orders for non-payment of rent have been put on hold until the lifting of the federal moratorium, said Craig Berke, spokesperson for the state court system. Decisions in residential eviction cases in which there are safety concerns, such as property damage or change in ownership, however, are being enforced, he said. Through June 15, there were roughly 1,300 eviction filings for non-payment of rent, compared with more than 1,500 through the same period last year and more than 3,000 in 2019, according to court data.

HOW AFFORDABLE IS HOUSING IN THE STATE’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?

As of May, the median monthly rent in the Providence metro area had risen 9% over the last year to $1,750, according to a report released June 16 by Realtor.com. Median rents for a two-bedroom apartment rose 12% to $1,975. The vacancy rate in Providence is about 5.8%, down from about 6.1% last year, according to Rhode Island housing. Statewide it’s around 3.3%, down from 4.24% this time last year.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

Lifting the eviction moratorium will be “devastating” to Rhode Island, which already had the highest eviction rate in New England, even before the pandemic, said Kristina Contreras Fox, a policy analyst at the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness. “We have virtually no housing stock,” she said. “So when Rhode Islanders get evicted, they and their families have literally nowhere to go.” Brenda Clement, of Housing Works RI, added there’s already a waiting list for homeless shelters and more than 100 people have been temporarily placed in hotels across the state as a result. Another indication of the looming problem is census data showing nearly 6,000 state residents concerned that they could be evicted over the next two months.