Explainer: Will Rhode Island's $200M For Rent Aid Be Enough?

FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo, housing activists erect a sign in Swampscott, Mass. A federal freeze on most evictions is set to expire soon. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo, housing activists erect a sign in Swampscott, Mass. A federal freeze on most evictions is set to expire soon. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire Saturday, after President Joe Biden’s administration extended the original date by a month.

The moratorium, put in place by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on their rent.

Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access nearly $47 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.

Advocates for tenants said the distribution of the money had been slow and that more time was needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who were behind on their rents.

Even with the delay, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. as of July 5 said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.

Here’s the situation in Rhode Island:

WHAT’S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?

The only protection against eviction currently in place in Rhode Island is the federal government’s moratorium. The state never imposed its own ban, though the legal proceedings were effectively halted while state courts were shuttered during the early months of the pandemic, said Brenda Clement, director of HousingWorks RI, an advocacy and research group based at Roger Williams University. This year, the Legislature didn’t approve proposals to impose a state eviction moratorium before recessing for the summer.

WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

Democratic Gov. Daniel McKee launched RentReliefRI this spring using $200 million in federal money. Rhode Island Housing, the state agency overseeing the effort, said it has approved more than 1,200 applications and provided almost $8 million in assistance to date. About 6,000 others are in review or in the process of being certified.

The program helps cover rent and utilities owed back to last April as well as up to three months of upcoming rent. Applicants can receive up to 18 months of assistance. The state also provided a combined $13.5 million to roughly 3,000 households through two other rent relief programs launched during the pandemic that have since wound down: Housing Help RI and Safe Harbor.

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

Hearings are proceeding in person by appointment, but executing court orders for nonpayment of rent have been put on hold until the lifting of the federal moratorium, said Craig Berke, spokesperson for the state court system. Decisions in residential eviction cases in which there are safety concerns, such as property damage or change in ownership, however, are being enforced, he said. Through July 28, there were more than 1,600 eviction filings for nonpayment of rent, compared with more nearly 2,000 through the same period last year and nearly 4,000 in 2019, according to Berke.

HOW AFFORDABLE IS HOUSING IN THE STATE’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?

As of June, the median monthly rent in the Providence metro area had risen 8.6% over the last year to $1,785, according to the most recent data from Realtor.com. Median rents for a two-bedroom apartment rose 14% to $2,028. The vacancy rate in Providence is about 5%, down from about 6.6% during the same period last year, according to Rhode Island Housing. Statewide, it’s 2.8%, down from about 4%.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

Lifting the eviction moratorium will be “devastating” to Rhode Island, which had the highest eviction rate in New England even before the pandemic, said Kristina Contreras Fox, a policy analyst at the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness. “We have virtually no housing stock,” she said. “So when Rhode Islanders get evicted, they and their families have literally nowhere to go.”

Brenda Clement, of Housing Works RI, added there’s already a waiting list for homeless shelters and more than 100 people have been temporarily placed in hotels across the state as a result. Another indication of the looming problem is July census data showing some 5,400 state residents concerned that they could be evicted over the next two months.