Federal Hill couple Butch and Madonna Trottier, aged 78 and 76 years old respectively, spent three months of the past year living in a house without heat. Nearly every night from October to February, they would pack into their car to escape the frigid air entering their home through its broken window. Despite paying $800 a month in rent since they moved into their Grove Street apartment two years ago, the couple says they spent months living with no heat, broken windows, and a rat infestation. “We kept telling the guy who came to collect the rent,” Madonna told Uprise RI in February. “He was right on time [for that].”
Their repeated requests for the landlord to address these issues were met with silence. Madonna noted that in November she was visited by a representative of the building’s proprietor who, upon feeling the draft entering their home, immediately promised to seal the window. However, after allegedly taking off for Home Depot to purchase supplies, she never returned. In December, the Trottiers stopped paying rent in protest of their landlord’s negligence. They hoped this move would inspire the property owner to make the necessary repairs in their apartment. Instead, in late January, they received an eviction notice.
Thousands of renters in Rhode Island share the Trottiers’ experience, according to Providence-based advocacy group Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE). Unresponsive landlords, rising rents, and a lack of renter protection are all contributing to a rising exodus of low-income residents from communities they’ve lived in for years. DARE exists to organize and advocate for low-income families, particularly in communities of color, in order to achieve social, economic, and political justice. Shortly after learning of the Trottiers’ dilemma, DARE launched a campaign for rent stabilization.
Rent stabilization limits the percentage by which landlords can raise rent each year and provides renters with guaranteed renewable leases. It is often confused with rent control, which also seeks to protect low-income renters from hiked rent prices and guarantees tenants an opportunity to re-sign if they choose to. However, rather than allowing landlords to increase rents by a certain percentage on a yearly basis, rent control caps the amount rent can be raised to a certain number annually. DARE’s campaign seeks to limit the percentage by which rent rises annually at four percent, which is the rise in cost of living as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index.
On February 14, the Tenants and Housing Association (THA), a committee of DARE consisting of working-class homeowners as well as tenants, rather than landlords, and committed to fighting against evictions and gentrification, announced its initiative at a protest against the Trottiers’ eviction. The THA’s membership consists of landlords and tenants alike.
At the event, the Trottiers’ son, Stephen Tobin, who lives in his own apartment on the second floor, revealed that he too was suffering from broken windows and poor heating, and that he had also received an eviction notice. “We’ve talked to the landlords to make some repairs, but they refused to do anything until the lease was up,” Tobin said. “They’re moving in college students. And then they’re going to be raising rent.”
In late October, the Trottiers’ building, along with a property at 190 Knight Street, was acquired by the apartment rental agency Providence Student Living for $473,000. This agency is based out of Boston and headed by Brown University Medical School alum, Dustin Dezube. According to Providence Student Living’s website, the organization aims to ensure that students have exceptional off-campus housing experiences because they “know what it’s like to live in dorms” and “know what students need to make the most of their time.” While student-specific renting may meet the needs of undergraduates temporarily in Providence, it fails long-term residents like the Trottiers and Tobin. It appears that Providence Student Living purposely neglected its responsibility to maintain newly-acquired properties in an effort to push its inherited residents to break their leases and leave early. This would expedite the process of remodeling the Grove Street building for future student renters.
Providence Student Living’s inability to meet the needs of its tenants while advertising to do just that for student renters suggests that they perceived the Trottier family as expendable. Due to their fixed income, they cannot afford to pay more than their rent of $800 a month. However, by renting with friends or receiving financial support from their parents, many college students can pay upwards of $2,000 a month.
Rental costs in Rhode Island are at an unprecedented high, according to RI Housing’s annual rent survey, and anticipated to continue increasing in the coming years. The cost of housing has been steadily rising since 2012. From 2015 to 2016, studio units saw the greatest increase, 11.1 percent, or from $855 to $949.91 per month on average, followed by two-bedroom apartments which experienced a 4.1 percent increase, or from $1,288 to $1,340.81 per month.
While these rising rents are beneficial for landlords and property owners, they are devastating for low-income residents, many of whom may soon have to move out of communities they have lived in for their whole lives. “Providence Student Living is an example of how gentrification is actively working in our city right now,” THA member Alexis Trujillo said at the February protest.
In an interview with film collective Signs of Providence following the agreement, Madonna revealed the increasing likelihood that she and her family would soon become homeless. With less than two weeks to find an apartment and move out, it seemed her family of three would soon be living on the streets. “I never thought I’d see myself in this situation,” she said. “Never.”
An inability to find an apartment led the Trottiers to make another deal with Providence Student Living. For the total amount of $1,500, the Trottiers and Tobin could remain in their respective apartments until the end of March. After that time, if unable to pay the full costs of their apartments, they would be required to move out. Due to a GoFundMe campaign created by Signs of Providence which raised over $4,000 in a single month for the family, they were able to cover the cost of remaining in their Grove Street apartment until May, when their lease ends. This is a rare gift and one not often available for people in their predicament. While the Trottiers no longer have to worry about being able to pay their rent or being evicted, this sense of relief is only temporary. Next month, whether they find an apartment or not, they will not have the opportunity to renew their lease.
The THA’s campaign seeks to add rent stabilization to the Providence voting ballot in November. According to the Providence City Charter, DARE must submit a copy of its proposed legislation and a petition of 1,000 signatures from registered Providence voters to the Providence City Council. Following the review and acceptance of these signatures, the organization must submit an additional 6,200 signatures. Though this process may seem daunting, THA is confident it will be successful. “The topic of housing instability resonates with so many tenants throughout Providence and people, including local, small-scale landlords, [who] are tired of absentee slum landlords’ negligence,” Trujillo told the Independent.
If the THA reaches its goal and Providence residents vote in favor, renter protection measures will be enacted, prohibiting landlords from raising rents more than once per year. It will also establish a nine-member board responsible for determining and limiting the city’s annual rent increase percentage. This group will consist of one Providence Department of Planning and Development member, one Providence Department of Inspections and Standards member, one Rhode Island Housing Board of Commissioners member, three tenants, and three landlord representatives. To prevent the possibility of the board having conflicting interests and members leaning in favor of landlords for their own financial gain, only the three designated landlord representatives will be allowed to own, manage, or profit from residential property in Rhode Island during their time on the board.
The rent stabilization initiative will guarantee Providence renters a renewable year-to-year lease, allow tenants to continue renting their apartment for as long as they choose, and ensure livable housing by settling any disputes between tenants and landlords through adjudication. This will be especially beneficial to those who otherwise have no access to a lawyer and cannot afford to go through a civil case. Presently, for renters who are dealing with the issue of inactive proprietors, the only way to hold landlords accountable is to sue them. If a landlord fails to maintain required services such as fumigation for pest outbreaks, tenants can apply to the Rent Board for a rent reduction.
Unfortunately, renter neglect, rising rent prices, and displacement stretch far beyond the smallest state in the Union. Throughout the country, particularly in California, low-income individuals are being forced out of their homes. This has led eight West Coast cities—Long Beach, Inglewood, Glendale, Pasadena, Santa Ana, Sacramento, Santa Cruz, and even Los Angeles—to start rent regulation campaigns similar to the one currently underway in Providence. “People are tired of having to choose between food, healthcare, and a decent home,” Santa Ana community organizer Hairo Cortez said at a rent control rally in March.
In January, the California State Assembly reviewed residential rent stabilization legislation which would provide municipal legislatures more flexibility in implementing rent control policies by repealing the Costa Hawkins Housing Act. This 1995 legislation prohibits rent regulation policies to be implemented on single -family homes or condominiums, prohibits cities that establish rent control after 1995 from expanding rent control, and prohibits municipalities from implementing vacancy control. The Costa Hawkins Act limits local governments’ ability to protect renters by prohibiting caps on rent increases and allowing landlords to retain the ability to raise rent on an apartment to market rate after a tenant moves out. To the dismay of rent control activists statewide, the California State Assembly ultimately upheld Costa Hawkins in a 3-2 vote by the Housing Committee.
Regardless of discouraging trends in renters’ rights nationwide, DARE believes passing and implementing rent control in Providence is more than plausible, as over 60 percent of Providence residents are cost-burdened renters, or paying over 30 percent of their income in housing costs. However, the organization has faced widespread misunderstanding regarding the purpose of rent stabilization. While collecting signatures, some volunteers say, they have encountered landlords who refuse to sign in support of the ordinance because they believe it will have negative consequences for their business.
“The goal of the Rent Control (or rent stabilization, more accurately) campaign is to encourage good landlordship and create some protections for renters, with a focus on protecting low-income or cost-burdened renters. We plan for the legislation to only negatively affect bad landlords.” Trujillo said. “We wrote this bill by looking at good landlords around the city and simply writing some of their best practices into this policy.”
The bill sets the initial rent price for a housing unit at market value and only regulates increases thereafter. It allows landlords who make substantial improvements to their properties to pass along 50 percent of the cost to their tenants over ten years. It also allows those who want to evict tenants to do so by selling properties, demolishing buildings, or complying with government orders. However, landlords must present a legitimate, legal reason to evict their residents. Otherwise, they must pay two months worth of rent and additional money to seniors, persons with disabilities, or tenants in families with children under 18 to help with moving costs. Tenants who experience a rent increase are also eligible for financial relocation assistance.
Currently, Rhode Island has no legislation mandating year-long leases. As a result, landlords who choose not to offer year-long leases have the ability to raise prices as they see fit. If a consistent renting price has not been established in the tenant’s lease for a predetermined duration of time, renters can at any time be faced with a rise in renting costs; they must either come up with additional funds to meet their new renting price or move out.
The Providence communities most affected by rising rental prices are the South Side of Providence, Olneyville, and the West End, says the THA. Currently, these historically Black and Brown neighborhoods are experiencing the displacement of hundreds of their community members; many residents within these areas straddle the poverty line and are unable to meet the increasingly straining demands of the Providence renting market.
As rents continue to increase and the availability of affordable housing units continues to decline, people within these communities face the ever-growing threat of homelessness. According to Alexis Trujillo, the communities most affected by these issues are low-income populations standing “at the intersections of marginalized identities,” like immigrants and LGBTQ+ people. For these already targeted groups, homelessness would exacerbate their vulnerability. The essentiality of housing lies not only its ability to provide physical protection, but also a holistic sense of security.
Mariela Pichardo B‘20 wants secure housing opportunities for people everywhere.