PROVIDENCE — Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi unveiled a long-awaited housing legislation package Thursday, which focuses on streamlining the production process and providing some relief to tenants, as Rhode Islanders continue to be priced out of places to live amid a shortage of housing stock.
Here’s what Rhode Island renters — and landlords — should know about some of the housing proposals the Assembly could consider this session.
1. Landlords wouldn’t be able to charge renters an application fee anymore.
Apartment application fees can run from $11 to $100, or more. In December, the Boston Globe published a story that documented the life of the Strong family, a hard-working, middle-class family of six who spiraled into homelessness and spent more than $5,000 in apartment application fees while they searched for a new place to live. Despite the overwhelming number of apartment applications they filled out — and fees they paid — the Strongs have yet to secure an apartment.
Shekarchi told the Globe Monday that it was that story that made some lawmakers want to end apartment application fees for good starting Jan. 1, 2024.
“There’s people who are homeless who can’t afford to spend the money on these fees. It’s a barrier,” said Shekarchi in an exclusive interview with the Globe.
Several other states have prohibited or limited rental application fees. In New England, Massachusetts and Vermont both prohibit a fee to submit an application.
Other legislators that have taken up the issue, too. On Wednesday, Senator Melissa A. Murray and Representative David Morales introduced a similar bill, that would also prohibit landlords from charging prospective applicants a fee for for a credit check, background check, screening or administrative services. A violation, under the proposed bill, would be considered an “unfair business practice,” and punishable as a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $500.
“It is often lower-income families and people of color who are most harmed by these unnecessary fees, as they are the ones who are typically paying higher fees and are more likely paying a series of fees for multiple apartments while searching for a new place to live,” said Morales, who pointed out how Section 8 subsidizes rent, but it does not subsidize application fees. “Clearly, rental application fees are a roadblock and could even be used to discourage some people from applying for a rental opportunity at all.”
The bill is scheduled for a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Members of the Strong family will testify at the hearing.
2. Using accessory dwelling units as short-term rentals – or Airbnbs – might not be allowed.
As part of Shekarchi’s housing legislation package, Representative June Speakman, a Warren Democrat, has introduced legislation that would allow for more accessory dwelling units, also known as ADUs, to be constructed by right within the existing footprint of properties of more than 20,000 square feet, or a half acre. The ADUs would be limited to 900 square feet and can be constructed on top of garages, in basements, or elsewhere.
The proposal would ban ADUs from being used for short-term rentals or Airbnbs. Lynne Urbani, the director of policy in Shekarchi’s office, explained to the Globe that the ban would apply to short-term rentals of 30 days or less. But if this bill becomes law, ADUs will be allowed to rent for several months.
“This is to help people who have parents or grown children that need a place to go,” said Shekarchi. “A family can stay together. Grandma doesn’t have to go to a nursing home. Adult children don’t have to move out and get an apartment. They can live at home.”
3. Landlords may have to provide notice of rent increases four to five months ahead of time — depending on a tenant’s age.
Representative Jennifer A. Stewart, a Pawtucket progressive, has introduced a bill that would require landlords to give tenants a 120-day notice — in writing — of a rent increase. If a tenant is over the age of 62, landlords would have to provide notice in writing at least 150 days ahead of a rent increase.
At this point, landlords only have to provide a 30-day notice to tenants who are 62 and younger, and 60-day notice to renters who are over age 62. A violation of the proposed law could result in a $500 fine.
4. Tenants might not have to face more than one rent increase each year.
A proposed bill would prohibit landlords from increasing the rent for a residential property more than once per year. Violation of the bill, if it becomes law, would be deemed a deceptive trade practice.
5. Landlords could be banned from using certain criminal records and credit history reports against prospective tenants in housing applications. They might not be allowed to ask about immigration status, either.
Speakman has also introduced a bill that would limit the use of certain criminal records and credit history reports in denying housing to prospective applicants. The proposed bill also prohibits drug and alcohol testing unless it is required under federal law or as a condition of staying in a residential treatment facility.
Landlords are allowed to request information or documentation to determine the financial qualifications of a prospective tenant or verify their identity. But a new bill would prohibit landlords from asking about their immigration status.
6. If you’re a victim of domestic abuse, sexual assault, or stalking, you might be able to terminate your lease.
Representative Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, a Cranston Republican, has introduced legislation that would allow tenants or household members who are victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault, or stalking to terminate their lease without being liable for future rent or early termination penalties or fees.
In her proposed bill, the tenant would have to provide a written notice requesting release from a rental or lease agreement. But that tenant would also have to work with the landlord on a “mutually agreed upon release date within” 30 days from the date of the written notice, with a copy of a valid order of protection and/or other court documents, which are listed in the bill.
7. The Secretary of State’s office might create a ‘landlord registry.’
A new bill would require landlords to register each of their properties with the Secretary of State’s office. Landlords will have to provide their name, address, and contact information; corporations will have to register under their business name, address of their headquarters, and include a registered agent. If the bill becomes law, the information would be made available to the public and posted on the website of the secretary of state.
Alexa Gagosz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.