Rally calls on RI lawmakers to support tenants' rights in several ways. Here's the ask

As debate ramps up over how to ease Rhode Island's housing crunch, tenants' rights groups are pushing to put new renter protections in state law, including rent caps, an apartment registry and process to keep eviction records secret.

They rallied at the State House on Tuesday in support of more than a dozen pieces of legislation aimed at helping tenants find a place to live, stay in their apartments and punish landlords who don't maintain their properties.

There's a bedbugs bill, a 120-day warning for rent increases, a state consumer housing guide bill and a prohibition on using criminal history to deny a rental application.

"Homelessness and evictions is not just one occurrence; it is cascade of events that leaves people housing insecure for up to seven years ... increasing the amount of housing insecurity on our state," Sen. Tiara Mack, sponsor of several housing bills, said at the Homes for All rally at the State House on Tuesday. "We need to make sure this session we pass tenant focused legislation and seal evictions."

State Sen. Tiara Mack addresses Tuesday's rally, part of a broader effort to establish what would be a first-in-the-nation state public housing developer to boost the housing supply and a raft of bills supporting the rights of tenants and prospective tenants.
State Sen. Tiara Mack addresses Tuesday's rally, part of a broader effort to establish what would be a first-in-the-nation state public housing developer to boost the housing supply and a raft of bills supporting the rights of tenants and prospective tenants.

Mack's housing bills this year include a Tenant's Bill of Rights, which would provide tenants a right of first refusal to buy the property they live in when an owner sells, evictions only when "good cause" is proven and 4% limit on rent increases.

The rally preceded a slew of housing bills coming before the Senate Judiciary Committee for a hearing Tuesday evening, including the rental registry, the sealing of eviction records and rent stabilization plan. A bill prohibiting landlords from turning away currently homeless applicants would also give tenants the right to "an assistance animal."

The House has made housing legislation its top priority this year, but some bills face an uncertain path in the Senate, including a ban on rental application fees passed by the House earlier this year, which was one of the bills championed at Tuesday's rally.

Several bills that aim to empower and inform tenants about lead in walls and pipes will get a vote

The rental registry was introduced at the request of Attorney General Peter Neronha as a tool to protect tenants from being poisoned by lead in old homes.

It would require all landlords to register their properties with the Department of Health and any rental unit built before lead paint was banned in 1978 would have to provide a lead hazard-mitigation certificate.

Any landlord who doesn't comply would be subject to fines of $50 per violation or, for "any landlord who repeatedly fails to comply," civil penalties of $1,000 per violation.

"By enacting these bills, Rhode Island will be on par with states like Maryland, which successfully reduced childhood lead poisoning with similar measures," Carol Ventura, CEO of Rhode Island Housing, wrote in support of the bill. "Moreover, a rental registry for all properties will improve public health and safety, consumer protection and housing policymaking in our state."

But landlords warned it would create a host of problems.

"Registries are for sex offenders, not housing providers," Steve Charette of Green Property Investment LLC wrote in testimony on the House version.

Architect David Sisson, who rents five apartments, said the registry would set off a mad scramble of property owners trying to do lead inspections and renovations before the October 2024 deadline.

"Guess what? If you pass this, I'm going to evict every single tenant because I need the units empty to in order to do any changes required based on the lead inspection," he said.

"The lead inspection always finds something that needs to be done, and it's VERY difficult to work on properties when the tenants are in them."

A narrower bill on lead in rental apartments passed out of House and Senate committees Tuesday. It would end the owner-occupant exemption from the state's lead hazard mitigation law.

Also dealing with lead, although not exclusively a tenants rights issue, the Senate on Tuesday passed Senate President Dominick Ruggerio's bill to create a lead water-line replacement program.

One bill would make it difficult for landlords to find out if potential tenants have history of eviction

Tenants' rights advocates say landlords often refuse to rent to people who have been evicted before, making it all but impossible for some to find a place to live.

The bill introduced by Mack and Rep. Teresa Tanzi in the House doesn't require all eviction cases to be sealed, but that they "may be sealed by the court upon motion by any party or parties after the conclusion of the case."

A judge should consider "whether the case was dismissed, whether rent claimed in the case has been paid through a rental assistance program, and if the case was resolved by stipulation whether the terms of the stipulation have been fulfilled by the parties."

Opponents of the bill testifying before a House committee last week said the criteria are vague and could create problems for landlords.

Sam Levy of Providence said in response to not being able to tell if someone has been evicted before, landlords will raise security deposits to three months' rent.

"In my experience, almost every tenant I had to evict, had many complaints against them by their neighbors," Levy wrote.

According to The Rhode Island Landlord- Tenant Handbook, "A landlord can take a security deposit from a tenant at the beginning of a new rental term but it cannot exceed one month's rent."

The rally Tuesday was promoted by Reclaim Rhode Island, which, in addition to tenant bills, is pushing this year to create a state housing developer and state public housing revolving fund.

Another tenants bill passed unanimously by the House Tuesday would increase the amount tenants can deduct from their rent – from $125 to $500 – to offset repairs they have made to their units.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Advocates seek tenant protections from bias, lead paint, rent hikes, more