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Local advocacy group pushes rent control

Direct Action for Rights and Equality hopes to establish right to year-long lease, limit rent increases

By
Metro Editor
Thursday, March 8, 2018

Direct Action for Rights and Equality protestors held broken hearts to symbolize the need for affordable housing in Rhode Island.

After a childhood littered with eviction notices, Providence native Franklin Rivera began adulthood by moving into an apartment last year — and was promptly faced with a leaking roof, hazardous electrical outlets, an unresponsive landlord and the burden of filing a lawsuit. The apartment is so “unlivable” that Rivera has sued his landlord for “not maintaining the apartment and not having a habitable house to live in,” he said.

But the lawsuit may very well prove fruitless for Rivera; his lease is month-to-month, which means the landlord could choose to evict him at any time during the process with only 30 days notice.

Direct Action for Rights and Equality is hoping to support Rivera and other renters like him by putting rent-stabilization on the Providence ballot this fall, DARE advocates announced at a press conference in February. The initiative would establish the right to a year-long lease and enact regulations that allow rent to increase only once a year and by no more than four percent, said Christopher Samih-Rotondo, community organizer for the Tenant and Homeowner Association at DARE. It would also set up a rent board to publish annual reports on Rhode Island property and mediate disputes between landlords and tenants, he added.

In order to make it on the city ballot in November, the initiative must collect at least 6,000 signatures from Rhode Island residents. DARE plans to submit the first 1,000 signatures in the next two weeks, Samih-Rotondo said.

The rent-stabilization campaign comes as more and more renters enter the private housing market in Providence, said Steven Fischbach, supervising attorney for Rhode Island Legal Services Housing Law Center and Foreclosure Prevention Project. The hike in renters follows a foreclosure crisis that dominated the city in the mid-2000s, when high-interest, flexible and non-sustainable loans made it nearly impossible for homeowners to maintain their homes. As a result, many homeowners became renters, Fischbach said.

“Former homeowners have been pushed into the private rental market. …  And the rental market is not set up to absorb them,” Fischbach said, adding that poor credit statuses caused by the crisis make it difficult for potential renters to borrow money.

The large volume of foreclosures created an excess of relatively low-price housing for investors to purchase, which often forces residents out of their homes to make room for businesses, Fischbach said. For instance, the Trottier family at 40 Grove St. in Federal Hill is facing eviction after the local rental business Providence Student Living purchased the three-family house to lease at a higher price to students, The Providence Journal reported.

Rent control would help mitigate the consequences of increased rent prices and investment presence, but the city needs to do more, said Betsy Stubblefield Loucks, consultant for Rhode Island Alliance for Healthy Homes.

“Rent control is certainly a part of the picture of creating more affordable housing stock, but another huge part is healthy housing,” Loucks said, adding that Providence housing stock is one of the oldest in the country and often comes with lead and insulation issues. “We can’t just look at these short, quick fixes without a bigger, broader process.”

There is also concern among housing advocates that rent control could lead to the exclusion of certain communities in areas that are more desirable to live — landlords tend to try to give apartments with “good deals” to friends and family, she added.

In addition to DARE’s efforts, nonprofits and legislators in the state are working to address concerns around affordable housing.

The Housing Opportunities Initiative, a Housing Network of Rhode Island project, is designing a ten-year strategy to respond to the concerns around affordable housing in Providence, Loucks said. The State House has scheduled a hearing to discuss trusts and services for children around the state, she added.