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Tenants threatened with eviction after they spoke to R.I. housing rights group, lawsuit claims

The ACLU and R.I. Center for Justice have filed a lawsuit on behalf of low-income tenants in Pawtucket and West Warwick, arguing that the threats are a violation of state law

Rhode Island District Court in Providence, R.I.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Attorneys from the R.I. Center for Justice and the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of four low-income tenants in West Warwick and Pawtucket who have been threatened with evictions for being associated with a nonprofit that helps tenants advocate for safe and healthy housing conditions.

The lawsuit was filed Friday against Elmood Realty LLC, and its manager Jeffrey T. Butler. Attorneys with the ACLU and Center for Justice argue the threats against the tenants are a violation of state law, which prohibits retaliation against individuals for becoming members of tenant’s rights organizations.

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In September, organizers for the nonprofit, Reclaim RI, spoke with tenants at Elmwood’s housing complexes in Pawtucket and West Warwick about organizing to address concerns about the conditions in their apartments. Some of the tenants called the city’s code enforcement agency to report housing violations, including the lack of a working carbon monoxide monitor, among other issues. As a result, the tenants were given notices of lease terminations.

The suit was filed by Rhode Island District Court in Providence by Center for Justice attorneys Jennifer Wood, Samuel Cramer and John Karwashan, and ACLU cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger. The suit seeks a temporary restraining order barring the property owners from pursing evictions against the tenants except for non-payment of rent. The suit also seeks an award of monetary damages to the plaintiffs, which is required by the state’s anti-retaliation law, and attorneys’ fees.

“With rents in Rhode Island skyrocketing and the supply of apartments, especially affordable apartments, at an all-time low, plaintiffs in this case, and other tenants of Elmwood Realty properties, have been presented with an illegal and impermissible ultimatum by their landlord: either forego exercising a right guaranteed to them by state law, or face eviction,” the attorneys wrote in a memorandum of law filed with the complaint.

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A hearing on the request for a temporary restraining order will be held after the New Year.

It’s unclear if Elmwood Realty or Butler have hired an attorney. Butler did not immediately return calls from the Globe seeking comment on Friday.

According to court documents obtained by the Globe, Butler also sent an email to all of his tenants that said “if you make a choice to engage with this Reclaim RI group, I will consider that you have now dissolved our relationship and when your tenancy is over, we will ask you to vacate.”

In late October, one of Butler’s agents with Elmwood Realty was accompanied by “several other men” who hand delivered a termination of tenancy notice to Esteven Rivera, a tenant who is one of the plaintiffs with his wife, Sylvia Rivera, who was speaking to Reclaim RI organizers. Rivera said he immediately showed the notice to his wife and they called both Reclaim RI and Pawtucket police to come to the house “because they felt intimidated after being approached by so many people,” the court documents say.

When Rivera was handed the eviction notice, there was no member of the Rhode Island Sheriffs Department present, according a the police report written by responding patrol officer Alexander Campbell. Campbell also noted that when he looked at the eviction notice, it appeared to be a photocopied District Court form that did not have any stamp from a judge, as required by law.

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Rivera, who has now been recruited as a “tenant leader” with Reclaim RI, continues to speak to his neighbors around the property about their issues with Elmwood Realty, according to court documents. However, the Riveras fear that if they are evicted “they will have nowhere to go” because their only source of income is Supplemental Social Security Insurance, court documents say, and “affordable apartments are extremely hard to find in the current housing market.” The Riveras pay $1,150 in monthly rent.

In another Elmwood Realty property in West Warwick, plaintiff and tenant Krystie Wood began engaging with Reclaim RI in September over the “ongoing and unaddressed defects” in her unit, which she also reported to West Warwick Code Enforcement. On Nov. 7, a man Wood did not know who claimed to be from the fire department — but was not in uniform and did not provide any credentials — knocked on her door and asked to come in as four or five men waited outside on the street. Wood said she refused to allow him to enter, and she called Reclaim RI organizers, who met her in a car on the street. She watched, her attorneys claim in court documents, as Butler joined the men. When Wood returned to her unit, the same unidentified man returned to Wood’s door and said Butler “had instructed him to enter the apartment over” her objection, the ACLU claims. She turned him away again, and later that day, Elmwood Realty posted a 48-hour notice to enter her unit, and taped a termination of tenancy notice to her door. This notice also lacks a judge’s seal.

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Wood “fears being evicted and fears that more groups of strangers may come to her dwelling unannounced,” the complaint filed in court Friday said. Wood pays $1,700 in monthly rent.

Court documents say the four plaintiffs — which also includes tenant Jordan Towns ― are each current on their rent.

Butler also allegedly threatened organizers with Reclaim RI, according to the ACLU. On Oct. 19, Butler left a voicemail on the phone of Representative Cherie Cruz, a Pawtucket Democrat who is also an organizer for Reclaim RI, where he warned her that any tenants associated with the group would be evicted.

“They have all been notified not to talk to you Reclaim RI pot smoking hippies,” Butler said in the voicemail to Cruz, which the ACLU provided a recording of to the Globe. “You are creating problems with these poor tenants, who didn’t do anything to deserve this and I’m gonna make sure everybody knows it. And I’m putting you on notice that you talk to my tenants, they give me your name and they will be evicted.”

Butler told Cruz in the voicemail that she and the other organizers were “only hurting tenants” and that he was adding a clause in the lease that would require his tenants to not speak to Reclaim RI organizers.

“You’re not licensed, you’re not educated, you’re not certified,” Butler told Cruz in the voicemail. “You guys are just a bunch of bums, running around haphazardly, causing problems.”

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Butler also called Shana Crandall, who also works with Reclaim RI, and left her a voicemail on Oct. 19 where he said she was “creating homelessness” by speaking to his tenants.

Attorneys with the ACLU and Center for Justice said Butler’s retaliation is illegal.

“Our General Assembly has mandated that their action to challenge a failure to meet minimum housing requirements cannot lawfully be met with retaliation, including eviction,” said Labinger.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.