About 75 tenants are calling Rhode Island’s Center for Justice each week for help fighting their evictions. That’s about triple the number of calls the organization was getting before the COVID-19 pandemic, director Jennifer Wood estimates. 

“We've been answering these phone calls since March [from] people who were terribly distraught about housing instability,” said Wood.

The organization, one of two that represents low income tenants in Rhode Island, has just four attorneys, and Wood is worried the volume of calls will skyrocket when the federal eviction protections expire on July 25. 

“We're only seeing the tip of the iceberg because a lot of these cases haven't really made their way into the system yet. So we would expect that to go up again significantly as we exit July and enter August,” Wood said. 

Gov. Gina Raimondo on Friday said the state will allocate $7 million in federal CARES Act funding towards rent assistance, in an effort to keep people in their homes. 

The funds will be distributed by the United Way of Rhode Island, and CEO Cortney Nicolato said the organization will also help connect tenants to mediation and legal support. 

“We really want to make this a program where we're providing financial assistance, but also go above and beyond that to help prevent those evictions from happening in the first place,” Nicolato said.

The Safe Harbor Housing Program funding can be used to cover up to 6 months worth of missed rent payments. Applications open Monday. In order to qualify, tenant households must meet the income requirements, and must be facing financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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Friday’s announcement more than doubles the funding the state has allocated for rental assistance since the start of the pandemic, and Raimondo said the state expects the program will be able to help at least 1,000 families. 

But little of the money allocated so far has made its way into people’s pockets. Fewer than 3 percent of the 4,827 applicants to the state’s Housing Help RI program have been approved since the program launched in May. And only $100,000 of the available $6.5 million has been distributed.  

According to Crossroads Rhode Island, the agency charged with distributing funds, strict documentation requirements have slowed the process down. Spokesman Mike Raia said the agency is waiting on W-9 forms from landlords, as well as documents from tenants, to move forward with the applications. 

The newly approved funding will have fewer federal restrictions. Tenants don’t need a formal lease to be eligible, and they don’t need to prove that an eviction is in process, two requirements of the Housing Help RI program. That could help speed up the process, said Nicolato. 

“The funding specifically in Housing Help RI has been incredibly restrictive, and that is because it came from HUD funding,” Nicolato explained. “Really Housing Help RI has traditionally been for those folks who are already well down the path of eviction or are experiencing homelessness already. So we're trying to get ahead of that. And this funding is through CARES, so this does allow us to be more flexible on how and who we support.”

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Even so, advocates fear the funding is far from enough to meet the need. The Homes RI coalition is pushing for the state to make $100 million available for rental assistance. Jennifer Wood of the Center for Justice noted that Montana, which has a population similar to that of Rhode Island, has allocated $50 million to rent assistance. 

“It helps me to scale this problem,” Wood commented, “if another state of a million residents is putting in an investment a factor of 10 greater than what we've been able to achieve.”

As of May, Rhode Island’s unemployment rate was 16%, up from 3.3% a year earlier. And Wood predicts the need for rent assistance will continue to rise as the $600 per week federal unemployment bonuses end July 31. 

“That's a terrible blow, frankly, for Rhode Islanders who've lost their jobs. And it further destabilizes the state's economy in terms of the volume of people that will now experience a second hit in terms of their income,” Wood said, adding that this will only exacerbate families’ need for help paying the rent. 

Raimondo acknowledged Friday that $7 million would not be enough aid, going forward. 

“I expect that when the $600 goes away, as this employment situation drags on, as the courts are open for evictions, we’re gonna get a better picture of how big the housing problem is,” Raimondo commented. “And we’re gonna come back and continue to address it. But this is meant to immediately provide relief to our most vulnerable families, and be there for them so they don’t end up homeless.” 

About 500 eviction cases have been filed with Rhode Island’s District Court since the start of June, fewer than were filed during the same period in past years. 

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Christoher Samih-Rotondo, co-director of Direct Action for Rights and Equality said he thinks both rent relief programs have blind spots. Rental assistance won’t help tenants being evicted for reasons other than nonpayment of rent, which have made up about a third of recent calls to the Center for Justice. And the programs rely on landlords to cooperate. 

In his view, a more comprehensive solution would be a moratorium on evictions. 

“No one, regardless of decisions they’ve made or struggles they have, should be put in the street and be put out of their housing right now. It’s a pandemic,” Samih-Rotondo said. “So we’ll keep demanding a moratorium.”

During her briefing, Raimondo said she’s still unsure whether she has the legal authority to halt evictions. And she called on the legislature to develop a more long-term solution to address the need for housing aid and affordable housing.