PROVIDENCE — The city announced Wednesday a new program that will aid low-income residents facing eviction access legal counsel. The program, which is funded through a $600,000 slice of the city’s American Rescue Plan funds, will match eligible residents facing eviction with an attorney or law student in housing court to prevent eviction.
The program, the Providence Eviction Defense, will be managed by Rhode Island Legal Services in partnership with the Rhode Island Center for Justice, Direct Action for Rights and Equality and HousingWorks RI, a clearinghouse of information about housing in Rhode Island at Roger Williams University.
The Providence Eviction Defense will operate for one year. Eligible residents include those who earn 65 percent or less of the area median income, which varies by neighborhood and household size, or live in a Providence qualified census tract.
Renters facing eviction can apply online or by contacting Rhode Island Legal Services at 401-274-2652. They can also visit the Tenant Help Desk in the Sixth District Housing Court in Providence.
“Anything we can [do to] prevent our residents and our neighbors from falling in that quicksand of deep poverty, we should do,” said Mayor Jorge O. Elorzaa former defense attorney. “This investment the [city] is making is to try to prevent that.”
The program will also support bilingual outreach, the mayor said.
“Our work can mean the difference between the family having enough time to find their next home or to have to go to a shelter,” said Steven S. Flores, who is the managing attorney of the Housing Law Center at Rhode Island Legal Services. Flores said an “overwhelming majority of tenants facing eviction do so without legal help.”
The city launched a similar program in June 2020 at the height of the pandemic, which was funded by Congress’ Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill in response to the beginning of the pandemic. The city used $1 million of its CARES funds to create the Collaborative Housing Program to help families with eviction defense and rent relief, which provided legal services to 775 families facing eviction.
More than one-third of Rhode Islanders are cost-burdened, which means households are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing alone, according to Brenda Clement, the director of HousingWorks RI.
“We simply do not have enough supply, and we have to do more,” said Clement. “Every community has to step up” and build more affordable housing — including Providence, she said.
Elorza said there’s “no reason” why this program should only be available for city residents, and hopes that the state takes on a similar initiative so it can help renters across the state.
Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune of Ward 3 said while this program is one tool, more affordable housing is needed in addition to programs that will result in first-time home ownership opportunities. Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris, of Ward 11, said many city residents are still facing financial ramifications from the COVID-19 pandemic, and from inflation. She said she’s heard from some residents who are facing the possibility of not being able to afford their rent for the first time.
“This new eviction program will provide more breathing room for the tenants. That could be up to a year,” said Harris. “That year really matters to people.”
Christopher Samih-Rotondo, the interim director of Direct Action for Rights and Equality, said he spent several years as a housing organizer and heard horror stories of landlords turning off the electricity to get tenants to leave, sending “thugs” to tell tenants they don’t have rights, or to “break their knees.” “The city of Providence is no stranger to that kind of politicking,” he said.
“That system is not tolerable,” said Samih-Rotondo.
Alexa Gagosz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.