The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing today on legislation sponsored by Sen. Dawn Euer to impose a moratorium on nonessential residential evictions and mortgage foreclosures during a state of emergency and establish an eviction-diversion program to resolve landlord-tenant eviction disputes.

“There should be no risk of more people becoming homeless during a state of emergency. Having housing is the Number 1 determinant of individuals’ health, safety, ability to stay employed and afford the essentials. Allowing evictions to proceed in times of widespread crisis would exponentially multiply the costs of those challenges, both in terms of dollars and in human harm,” said Senator Euer (D-Dist. 13, Newport, Jamestown).

The legislation (2021-S 0183) would prevent any part of an eviction process from moving forward during a declared state of an emergency, from eviction notices to court filings or actions. It would also prevent landlords from charging late fees on rent, if the tenant provides documentation that the nonpayment was related to the state of emergency. The protections would not apply to evictions resulting from alleged criminal activities or lease violations that pose a health or safety danger to the landlord, other residents or the public.

“Prior to the pandemic, there were about 8,000 evictions filed in Rhode Island annually. Some estimates indicate there are about 18,000 families who are currently behind on their rent due to the pandemic. The recovery from this crisis is going to be slow and those who can least afford to miss a paycheck are the hardest hit by the economic fallout,” said Senator Euer.

The legislation also forbids mortgage holders from foreclosing during declared states of emergency, and establishes a similar prohibition on late fees for payments that were late for reasons related to the emergency.

The eviction diversion program created by the bill would operate within District Court, and would establish housing mediators who would engage with both the landlord and the tenant to try to reach an acceptable settlement to prevent eviction.

Once the program is established, no landlord may proceed with an eviction until first attempting conciliation with the tenant through the program, with exceptions in cases when there is imminent danger.

“Based on the experience in mediation programs around the country, if Rhode Islanders have access to mediation before an eviction is filed the vast majority will reach a solution acceptable to both sides before the cases ever go to court. The expense of going to court will be prevented, the results will be more balanced and fair by leveling the playing field between represented and unrepresented parties, and the well documented negative long-term consequences of having a court eviction on the tenant’s record will be avoided,” said Senator Euer.

The stimulus package that passed in December included $200 million in rental assistance for Rhode Islanders this fiscal year, and the new stimulus package that President Joe Biden is expected to sign tomorrow will include additional rental assistance to be applied after the fiscal year ends June 30. The mediation program would help ensure those funds get to those who need it the most and would be paid for by federal dollars, Senator Euer said.

While there is currently a nationwide moratorium on evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, issued through the Centers for Disease Control, it expires March 31, doesn’t protect tenants who are evicted for reasons other than nonpayment of rent and does not prevent mortgage foreclosure.

Source: Rhode Island General Assembly

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