In the midst of a national and statewide housing crisis, tenants and housing advocates have voiced concerns about housing conditions and availability. In Rhode Island, one local company has been a specific point of focus over the past months: Pioneer Investments, LLC.
Pioneer Investments, a Rhode Island-based real estate firm owned by landlord Anurag Sureka, owns about 250 rental units, according to Samuel Grossack, a spokesperson and legal representative for Pioneer.
Citing the presence of lead in a Pioneer-owned property, animal and bug infestations and improperly maintained facilities — among several other issues — both Pioneer renters and local advocates have taken a stand against the company.
Most Pioneer residents “are pleased with their living condition,” Grossack said. “Pioneer takes the health and safety of their residents very seriously,” he added.
Pioneer Investments is “continually taking advantage of their tenants in regards to the conditions that they’re forcing them to experience without any form of urgency to even repair them or address those issues,” said State Rep. David Morales, (D-Providence).
Reclaim R.I. is one of the groups working towards improving these conditions. Following the summer of 2021, Reclaim, which started as a Rhode Island for Bernie Sanders organization, shifted its focus to housing rights — a close-to-home issue for several members, according to Organizing Director Miguel Martinez Youngs
“Most of our organization’s (members) are tenants,” Youngs said. “We actually found out about Pioneer Investments because one of our members was renting from them.”
Reclaim, along with other housing rights groups in the state, has worked to organize several public demonstrations and rallies in opposition to Pioneer Investments. These methods, based primarily on tenant advocacy, are part of what Reclaim’s Lead Tenant Organizer Shana Crandell called a “labor union-style pressure campaign.”
“We’re getting tenants talking to each other, getting them organized and (demanding) plans (from) Pioneer Investments to make repairs,” Crandell said. “We showed up at the landlord’s house and let the neighbors know that this is a landlord who does not give his tenants a dignified place to live.”
While Youngs noted that Reclaim’s efforts and public testimony have successfully drawn attention to the issue, the potential legal ramifications of this organizing are an obstacle difficult to overcome for protestors who “are not lawyers.”
The Rhode Island Center for Justice provides legal counsel and tenant support in eviction court, according to Youngs. RICJ is a non-profit law center that partners with community groups to ensure the legal rights of “vulnerable individuals, families and communities,” according to its website.
Morales added that tenants can sometimes face retaliation for speaking out against their landlords.
According to Crandell, protesters were facing pushback from Pioneer itself. “About a month ago, maybe a little bit longer now, the landlord started (evicting) the tenants who were active in our organizing,” Crandell said. “That had a really big impact on other tenants being willing to get involved because the fears spiked a lot after these retaliatory terminations.”
Grossack denied these claims.
“Pioneer continues to work professionally with all residents, including those who have participated in recent protests. Pioneer encourage(s) all residents to voice their concerns and provide feedback,” he wrote in an email to The Herald.
Substandard affordable housing is often the only choice for many Rhode Island residents, according to Crandell. Several landlords “specifically attract tenants who have no other options” and “nowhere else to go, so they will put up with these terrible conditions,” they said.
According to Grossack, Pioneer only participates in standard screening options for tenants.
These concerns are part of a broader issue impacting primarily low-income renters. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, nearly a third of rented households in Rhode Island are considered “extremely low income,” the majority of which deal with a “severe cost burden.”
“There’s a ton of slumlords in this state,” Youngs said, adding that their business model “preys upon these low-income tenants in need of affordable housing.”
“It’s 100% not just Pioneer,” Youngs said.
For Youngs, the next steps towards housing justice are to establish sufficient affordable housing and get “stronger tenant protection laws passed to prevent landlords from taking advantage of their tenants.”
Morales has advocated for similar legislative protections in the General Assembly, including a “tenant bill of rights.”
Earlier this month, a package of several bills was presented to the R.I. State House to combat several issues related to the housing crisis, The Herald previously reported. Morales has sponsored several housing bills this year, including one that would prohibit application fees for prospective tenants.
As housing bills proceed in the state legislature, Reclaim workers like Youngs and Crandell are continuing their on-the-ground efforts with tenants renting from companies like Pioneer.
“One way we’re thinking about the Pioneer campaign is putting all the slumlords in Rhode Island on notice,” Crandell said. “Here is the first target, but not the last.”
Samantha Chambers is a contributing writer and has previously worked at The Herald as a copy editor. She is a first-year student from Tampa, Florida and is planning on concentrating in sociology.