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For the past couple of years, Sofía has lived in the same apartment on Aquidneck Island. It’s a modest place with two bedrooms, and it costs a little over $1350 per month.

Sofía has always had a roommate live in one of the bedrooms to help pay the rent. She shares the other room with her two young children, sleeping side by side in twin beds. The living room is small but tidy, with a couch, some toys, and a little table where her kids do their homework for elementary school.

Since moving in, Sofía says she’s done everything she can to be a good tenant.

“I was always on time with the rent. I always paid it in the first five days of the month,” she said. “When everything happened with COVID, the rent was also paid on time.”

That hasn’t been easy. Sofía moved to the Newport area only three years ago from Central America to leave a domestic violence situation and join her father and brothers, who also live on the island. Because she is undocumented, we are not using her real name.

Sofía works full-time in housekeeping at a local hotel, where she makes close to minimum wage. She picks up some extra cash in the summer from tips, but it slows down in the winter. Last year, she also contracted COVID-19 and was out of work for about a month.

At one point, when finances were tight, Sofía tried applying for rental assistance through a local pandemic-related program.

“But I couldn't apply because when we asked the owner to sign that application, he said that he couldn't because he didn't have the apartment declared,” she said.

In other words, her landlord wouldn’t support her application because he allegedly hadn’t been paying the taxes or reporting his own rental income on the apartment. Sofía didn’t want to push it, so she never applied.

Then, this past summer, Sofía’s landlord dropped another bomb. This fall, he would be raising the rent on her apartment by nearly 60%, or about $800 per month.

Sofía had already been expecting that her rent might increase this year, but she thought it would be the kind of bump other tenants are seeing, perhaps between 10 and 30 percent. She was shocked to see her monthly rent surpass $2,000 so suddenly.

Sofía mentioned the rent hike to someone at a local social services organization, and she says he told her, “That’s abuse. You can’t stay there.”

Both Sofía and her landlord know, however, that there’s littlewhere else for her to go. Year-round rentals are hard to come by on Aquidneck Island these days. Sofía’s immigration status, along with not having credit, makes it even harder to compete.

In addition, Sofía relies on public transit to get to work, and she often walks 45 minutes home when she’s done. So losing the apartment, and having to move farther away, could mean losing her job.

But it doesn't seem to Sofía like her landlord is interested in that part. She says he told her, “If you find another place that’s cheaper, you can go.” If she wants to stay, she’ll have to pay up.

Confronting a predatory environment

The problem is much bigger than just one family, says Elizabeth Fuerte, who serves on Newport’s City Council and Rhode Island’s statewide Housing Resources Commission. She believes that, across the island, the tight housing market has created an environment ripe for predatory behavior — especially toward undocumented families like Sofía’s.

“When it comes to our folks that fly underneath the radar that have to, you know, keep it quiet, or don't like to get noticed, for whatever reason — we know for a fact that situation has gotten worse,” said Fuerte. “They've learned how to deal with it, or resolve any issues under the radar. But we know that there's been a lot of discrimination and abuse.”

Some of this behavior is technically legal. Rhode Island doesn’t limit how much landlords can raise their tenants’ rent each year. So they’re allowed to even double the monthly rent, as long as they follow procedures and give adequate notice.

It’s also true that rents are going up for nearly everyone in this market. But community advocates say extreme rent hikes, like in Sofía’s case, feel exploitative.

Some households are also prey to more clear misconduct. Fuerte says she had to intervene after one landlord tried to push a Hispanic family out of their apartment by imposing restrictions, like when they could use the bathroom. In another case, a local landlord allegedly let tenants live in a unit with a sewage leak, ignoring the unsafe conditions until someone got sick.

Because of their legal status, many undocumented families are reluctantant to report these violations to authorities. They also don’t want to risk losing whatever housing they have.

The market is so tight that people are holding on, you know, regardless of what conditions they're facing where they're living,” said Mario Bueno, the executive director of Progreso Latino, an organization that serves Rhode Island’s Latino and immigrant communities. “They're holding on to that because it's so hard to find available apartments.”

Bueno says some households are willing to remain in substandard conditions, like apartments where the heating system or other utilities aren’t working, because of the dire housing situation in the state. He feels that taking advantage of these families' vulnerabilities is especially wrong given how much of Rhode Island’s economy, including in Newport, relies on immigrants.

“We don't have to talk about how important Italian Americans were in our society. Irish Americans, Portuguese Americans. We have Latino Americans now. Are we gonna treat them the same way that previous immigrant communities were treated?” Bueno asked. “I think that over time, we should be able to look back and learn from our mistakes.”

An unsustainable situation

As of this month, Sofía’s rent officially went up. Her roommate decided to leave, so her two younger brothers recently moved into the other bedroom. They also work in Newport’s hospitality industry.

Sofía says she has considered picking up a second job, but someone needs to take care of her kids when they’re not in school. Others have suggested she rent out the common area as a third bedroom, but then her children wouldn’t have anywhere to play or do their homework.

For now, Sofia’s going to stay and pay the higher rent, until she can find a different place. She feels she doesn't have many options besides finding a way to make it work, even though it’ll mean having less money for other necessities. She’s also already worried about how her income will shrink this winter.

Sofía says she wishes landlords were more sensitive to what they’re doing by squeezing undocumented families more than they need to.

“I know that maybe there are other people who can pay more than us, but I want them to take into account the punctuality in which one pays the rent. We are never saying, ‘Oh, I'll pay you next month,’” she said. “For us, having a roof to live under is a priority in this country.”

Sometimes, however, it can feel like that’s being used against them.

This story is part of a series on housing and under-documented families on Aquidneck Island. Click here to read or listen to the first part about how rising housing costs are impacting undocumented residents around Newport, RI. 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.

If you are experiencing difficulty with housing on Aquidneck Island or in Rhode Island, resources and help are available:

Conexión Latina Newport: The mission of Conexión Latina is to educate, inform, mobilize and advocate for all Hispanics in Newport, as well as advise and partner with social services, education and government agencies, on how they best meet the needs of the Newport Hispanic Community. Visit their website, or call / Whatsapp 401-585-8165.

RentReliefRI: A program to provide rental and utility assistance to help eligible renters maintain housing stability. More information is available online at this link. Note: Undocumented residents of Rhode Island are permitted to apply for assistance, provided they meet other eligibility requirements.

Rhode Island Center for Justice: The Rhode Island Center for Justice partners with community groups to protect legal rights and to ensure justice for vulnerable individuals, families, and communities. Note: If you are seeking legal advice or assistance, you must first meet with an attorney at one of our two community clinics. The attorney will perform an intake interview to determine whether we can offer representation or not.

Clinics take place at the following dates and times:

  • Tuesdays from 6-8pm at DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality) at 340 Lockwood Street in Providence
  • Wednesdays from 2-4pm at CAPP (Community Action Partnership of Providence) at 518 Hartford Avenue in Providence

If you are unable to come to a legal clinic due to time or geographical constraints, disability, or other reason, please call our office to make arrangements.

The Rhode Island Tenant-Landlord Handbook: Available online at this link. “Your Rights as a Tenant,” prepared by Rhode Island Legal Services, available online here.

Women’s Resource Center: The WRC provides a number of programs and services, including emergency shelter, to clients and their family members who are or have been a victim of domestic violence. For assistance, contact 401-846-5263 or info@wrcnbc.org. The organization’s 24-Hour Hotline is 1-800-494-8100.

Know of another resource or organization we should add to this list? Email us at antonia@thepublicsradio.org


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

Pearl Marvell contributed to this story. She 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 mosaiccommunity@thepublicsradio.org