Metro, News

Students lobby for housing legislation

Bill introduced Tuesday would protect potential renters who receive housing vouchers

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Maritiza Del Rosa poses with her son and Gabe Zimmerman '18 at the Rhode Island State House after lobbying for a bill that aims to end housing discrimination for homeless individuals.

University students lobbied for a bill designed to eliminate housing discrimination against homeless individuals  Tuesday afternoon at the Rhode Island State House. House Bill No. 7528, entitled “An Act Relating to Property — Fair Housing Practices,” was introduced to the House Committee on Judiciary by seven Democratic representatives.

The bill will allow more of Rhode Island’s homeless community to find housing, said Morgan Talbot ’18, advocacy director for Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere. Without this legislation, landlords can discriminate against buyers in the Housing Choice Voucher program, which gives supplemented rent to those that score highest on the homelessness vulnerability index form, he added. 

As part of their research, HOPE finds housing listings that discriminate against potential buyers who receive vouchers. “It’s pretty sad to see these,” Talbot said. “Sometimes it’s like, ‘No dogs, no smoking, no Section 8.’”

Maritiza Del Rosa, a Rhode Island constitutent who has experienced homelessness, was already inside the State House when students arrived. As Del Rosa walked around the House chamber with Executive Director of HOPE Gabe Zimmerman ’18, she shared her own story. She explained how difficult it was to get back on her feet and to raise children out of a shelter, where she still lives.

“Everyone deserves a home,” she said.

HOPE reached out to Del Rosa to tell her about the bill’s introduction after she left her contact information on a HOPE survey indicating her interest in advocacy. The survey, which asked 200 Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness what prevented them from finding stable housing, revealed “lack of affordable housing” and “sources of income” to be the leading causes, Talbot said. The bill would address concerns surrounding “sources of income” by outlawing discrimination against those who receive money from the government, he added.

Before the bill’s introduction at the State House, it had not seen much opposition, Talbot said. Mandated Section 8 inspections were included in the 2017 version of the bill, which passed the Senate but died in the House, he added.

“We don’t think (the bill) is going to be a hassle for landlords,” Talbot said.  Some landlords actually encourage those with vouchers to apply for housing because they are guaranteed payment from them, he added.

State Representative Anastasia Williams (D-9), one of the bill’s sponsors, emphasized that “safe, sanitary, affordable living accommodations” are a basic human right.

“For far too long many of us haven’t been able to rest easy … especially those of us with children,” Williams said, adding that the “affordable housing” that is created isn’t always as affordable as it seems.

Before the House convened, students from HOPE and the Brown Progressive Action Committee approached representatives to advocate on behalf of the bill. Many cited similar bills that exist in Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut. Most representatives were receptive to the students’ pitch; some said they had to look over the bill before they could make promises, while others were busy getting signatures and sponsors for other pieces of legislation and asked if they could discuss the bill later.

When the bell on the House floor started to ring, most of the legislators, lobbyists and aids ignored it until the Speaker banged his gavel and the session began, at which point advocates were asked to leave the chamber. Outside, both Zimmerman and Del Rosa spoke fondly of their advocacy experiences.

“We got a lot of information on where legislators stand,” Zimmerman said. “For many students, it was their first time on The Hill,” he added, happy that the group was able to include constituents who had experienced homelessness. Del Rosa was also pleased to have lobbied, although she admitted that she had been nervous. She posed with her son and Zimmerman for a photo in the State House to mark the moment.

“Our goal, ultimately, is to end homelessness in Rhode Island,” Talbot said, “which we firmly believe is possible.”

The bill will be discussed at the Senate Judiciary meeting on Thursday.