The Public's Radio · As Newport home prices rise, undocumented families struggle to find secure housing

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For Lucia, the hardest time of day is when everyone wakes up.

She lives in a mobile home on Aquidneck Island with her husband, her two children, her sister, her brother-in-law, and their two children. That’s eight people in total, plus a pet parrot, all in the same small space. All in the midst of a pandemic.

It’s most difficult in the morning, she says, because everyone’s in a hurry. One of the first things they do is form a line to use the bathroom. Then, after getting ready, they all shuffle out to head to work and school.

That’s the only time of day when the house is calm. Otherwise, Lucia says it’s always crowded. She and husband share a bedroom with their 12-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, who themselves have to sleep together in a twin bed. There’s little by way of privacy.

“I think it affects me emotionally, a bit psychologically,” Lucia said. “Because sometimes all three children, they’re fighting, and the space is small. Or sometimes my sister's cooking and I have to cook at the same time. So she gets frustrated, and it's kind of hard to be colliding all over the place.”

The home is warm and pristine, but there’s always something happening. Fresh chicharrones, fried pork rinds, sizzle in a pan in the kitchen. The parrot squawks in its cage. Her son and nephew play with Hot Wheels cars in the living room and talk about their favorite Marvel superheroes. And the adults come and go, to and from work, morning until night.

It has been this way for almost half a year, since Lucia and her family moved from New Jersey to join her sister in Rhode Island. Before that, Lucia emigrated from Central America to the United States seven years ago.

Lucia has a work authorization, but her husband is undocumented. To protect her family’s privacy and security, we’re not using Lucia’s real name.

She works two cleaning jobs on Aquidneck Island, five to six days a week. Her husband works twelve hours each day in construction and painting, leaving at 6:30 each morning and returning after sundown. They pitch in rent to Lucia’s sister, but it’s still not enough to get their own place.

Lucia recently applied for a two-room apartment for $1,800 per month. It was the cheapest she could find, but the landlord rented it to someone else. After that, she said two-bedroom listings are often closer to $2,500, or even $3,000 per month. So far, nothing has worked out. And Lucia’s family isn’t alone.

Rising costs and limited options

As housing prices have skyrocketed around Newport over the past couple of years, rents have climbed, too. The fair market rent for a two-bedroom on Aquidneck Island is up 20% from two years ago, to $1,705 a month, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s latest evaluation. And the growing popularity of short-term rentals and vacation homes means year-round rentals are generally in short supply. The pandemic provided a further crunch.

The housing situation has created a crisis for many island families, according to Rebekah Gomez and Yolanda Macías, the co-directors of Conexión Latina Newport. Their organization serves and advocates for local Hispanic and Latino families, who make up over 8% of the population on Aquidneck Island.

This fall, Gomez says they have been receiving three or four calls every week from people who can’t find an affordable place to live.

“It's frustrating. You know, people come to us for a lot of things, and there are a lot of things that we can fix,” Gomez said. “There's a lot of things that we can refer them to, but housing is not something we have in our back pockets.”

Another problem is that most undocumented and under-documented families aren’t eligible for public housing or government-subsidized rentals. So while Newport has among the highest rates of subsidized housing in Rhode Island, these households can’t receive that assistance, whether or not they make well below the qualifying income. Many locals also note that Newport's supply of subsidized housing already can't keep up with demand.

Mixed-status households — families in which at least one member is a U.S. citizen or otherwise eligible for subsidized housing — are permitted to apply, but their monthly rent is prorated based on how many individuals are eligible for assistance. So for a family in which just one or two members qualify, the monthly rent for a subsidized unit could still be hard to afford. In fact, a staff member at the Newport Housing Authority said very few, if any, mixed-status families currently reside in local subsidized units.

Nearly all undocumented and under-documented families instead live in private, market-rate housing — even if paying for it requires packing multiple families into single rooms, or splitting relatives up across Newport wherever they can find spare beds.

“I would say 90% of our families live in privately owned houses or apartments,” Gomez said. “And those landlords can basically do whatever they want.”

Families say they can’t just pack up and move off Aquidneck Island if their landlords raise their rent by 50% or 60%, which is what some locals saw this year. Most of the families served by Conexión Latina Newport have children enrolled in local schools, where there are large programs for English Language Learners, which they don’t want to lose.

Most of the adults also work locally, largely powering Newport’s important hospitality and service industries. Rhode Island doesn’t issue drivers licenses to undocumented residents, so for the many people who don’t work near public transit, moving away could mean losing their source of income.

That concern has kept Lucia from leaving the island, even as the months pass and she still searches for an apartment.

“I’ve thought about [moving away] because I've seen on the internet that there are rentals in other places,” she said. “But the problem is that my jobs and my husband's jobs are here.”

Elizabeth Fuerte, a member of Newport’s City Council and the Rhode Island Housing Resources Commission, believes Newport can do more to help Spanish-speaking residents caught in this bind. She would like to see more resources translated into Spanish, and she has advocated for the city to develop and allocate funds for a so-called “Language Access Plan.”

Fuerte says tackling the issue will also involve educating landlords and other community members about how much Hispanic and Latino families contribute to the island.

“We still have a population that's here and been here for decades,” she said. “And we haven't welcomed them in the sense that, ‘We are here for you. Tell us how can we make it better?’”

Despite this, Fuerte added that she’s amazed by many families’ dedication to Aquidneck Island and the sacrifices they’re willing to make to stay.

“I've spoken to people that are native from other countries,” she said. “And they have come to Newport and have said to me, ‘I will die in Newport.’”

A difficult application process to navigate

Sitting in her sister’s home one afternoon, Lucia said she imagines her family will stay on Aquidneck Island for the long-term.

“I love the island, and my children are good here,” she said. “So yes, I think that I’ll stay living here.”

It seems to get harder and harder, however, to compete for what little housing is available. Even when Lucia has found listings that she could possibly afford, some landlords ask for their social security numbers, which her husband doesn’t have.

His immigration status puts them at a disadvantage in less direct ways, too. Lucia’s husband earns his wages in cash, which makes proving their household income more difficult. Their family does have a checking account, and those bank statements can be used to show the couple’s earnings. But Lucia said it can feel like a complication when many landlords expect to see pay stubs.

The whole process — the websites where landlords post new listings, and the application forms with different requirements and questions — is also all in English, a language that Lucia doesn’t speak.

“I translate with Google,” Lucia told me. “I try to translate to know what it says, what are the requirements to find the apartment.”

The translations aren’t always perfect and occasionally Lucia’s adolescent daughter has to help when she’s home from school. Lucia would like to take English classes, but she hasn’t found time between her work schedule and taking care of her children.

The language barrier is another layer that makes the search for housing, something that is already a confusing and stressful experience in one’s first language, even more difficult.

Lucia says it can all sometimes feel disheartening. After months of searching, she is basically where she started, still crammed in with her sister’s family and without many prospects on the horizon. But her life and livelihood are on the island. So she says she still believes — she has to believe — something will work out.

“I have hope,” she said. “I keep waiting for four months, I’ll keep waiting more.”

This story is the first part of a series on housing and under-documented families on Aquidneck Island. Click here to read or listen to the second part about one undocumented worker’s story, and how housing instability is impacting a crucial workforce on the island. Click here to read or listen to the third part about how rising housing costs are making undocumented families particularly vulnerable to predatory behavior and landlord misconduct.

Antonia Ayres-Brown is the Newport Reporter for The Public’s Radio and a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at

Pearl Marvell is the Community Producer for Mosaic, The Public’s Radio’s podcast that explores immigration and identity in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. She can be reached at