The Eviction Prevention Assistance Program, a brief successor of RentReliefRI, closed at the end of August, a state official told The Herald. The program was funded by the remnants of $200 million in federal dollars from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program in 2020 and an additional $152 million allocated to Rhode Island from the program as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
RentReliefRI began accepting applications in April 2021 and stopped accepting new applications on June 1, 2022. This past summer, Gov. Dan McKee transferred over “unexpended additional federal recovery funding to the rent relief program” to the state’s Eviction Prevention Assistance Program, Brenda Clement, director of HousingWorks R.I., told The Herald.
According to R.I. Housing Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer Christine Hunsinger, the Eviction Prevention Assistance program opened in June and operated until the $4.5 million allocated was depleted at the end of August. The program assisted 611 households in Rhode Island during that time, she said.
Within three days of the program ending, calls to the state’s 211 eviction hotline tripled — up to 745 calls, Cortney Nicolato, president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island, told the state House’s Special Legislative Commission to Study Housing Affordability Sept. 14.
The program prioritized tenants with immediate risk of eviction, specifically those with an ongoing eviction case or a five-day demand letter, which notifies a tenant that owed rent must be paid within five days before a court eviction process can begin, according to Hunsinger.
With the end of the Eviction Prevention Assistance Program, the last of the emergency rental assistance money given to Rhode Islanders as a result of the pandemic has been spent.
RentReliefR.I.’s assistance was far more expansive than EPAP, assisting 37,000 households who received support through the program at least once and 10,000 who received support more than once, Hunsinger said.
Depending on how much back rent a household owed, they could apply multiple times up to 18 months of assistance, if necessary, she explained.
For many, rent relief was “a lifesaver,” Clement said.
RentReliefR.I. aimed to help households severely impacted by COVID-19’s economic turmoil, Hunsinger said. Overall, the program helped “people who had their feet taken out from under them,” including Rhode Islanders at 30% area median income or below who were severely impacted by price increases, Hunsinger said.
Camilo Viveiros, coordinator and executive director at the George Wiley Center, described helping hundreds of people apply for rental assistance through the center, which focuses on issues surrounding housing, utilities and the cost of living.
Viveiros said that he was not notified when the Eviction Prevention Assistance program was running out of funds, though its website did specify the program had “limited funding available.”
Manuel de la Hoz, a Pawtucket resident and George Wiley Center member, told The Herald he received aid from the Eviction Prevention Assistance program in July. Through an interpreter, he explained that the program was “very helpful because he received more assistance than expected.”
For those directly impacted, like Marlen Contreras, de la Hoz’s sister-in-law, the sudden expiration of funds was disappointing. Contreras heard from de la Hoz’s wife about how helpful the program was and unsuccessfully applied for assistance after the program’s expiration at the end of August.
Caty Conaty — a retired nurse living in senior housing — found out about the eviction prevention program before it expired, but struggled to apply before the program ended and currently faces an eviction notice.
Given that the original COVID-19 relief program funding has been depleted, more funding appears unlikely since the federal COVID-19 public health emergency ended in May, Hunsinger said.
“COVID hasn’t receded,” Viveiros said, adding that he had hoped “injustices that were partially addressed then by improving protections around eviction” would be fully addressed.
What remains funded by the city of Providence is the Eviction Defense Program, a legal defense program aimed at low-income tenants run by a handful of groups like Rhode Island Legal Services and the R.I. Center for Justice, according to Clement.
Going forward, groups like RILS and the R.I. Center for Justice — partners of United Way and the George Wiley Center — will continue providing eviction services for those in need. The George Wiley Center also has an anti-eviction clinic every Wednesday where they connect people with ongoing housing court cases with Rhode Island Legal Services lawyers, according to Viveiros and Cortney Smith, director of the 211 hotline at United Way of Rhode Island.
The “expertise that a lawyer brings to the table can be the difference between someone being able to stay in their home and being able to pay back rent versus being evicted,” said Larry Warner, chief impact and equity officer of United Way.
Previous programs aimed at expanding legal services for tenants at risk of eviction had “positive” results, according to the 2022 HousingWorks R.I. Housing Fact Book.
But legal services aren't everything: “The provision of legal assistance provides a gentler transition or a little bit more time, but it isn’t going to change the fact that they need to pay rent,” said Melina Lodge, executive director of the Housing Network of Rhode Island, during the hearing on Sept. 14.
Smith of United Way added that it’s also important to recognize that “rent is only one piece of the puzzle.” Based on daily conversations with the community members, a future program, she hopes, would “take a more extensive … holistic approach to helping people.”
According to Smith, it’s important to look at “economic stability and mobility as a way to position Rhode Islanders for success, not just in their housing needs but in health care, education and other daily needs.”