Less to Lean On: Housing Insecurity in Rhode Island, Part 1
This is the first part in a special series from Trending Globally exploring the housing crisis in the United States, and in Rhode Island in particular. This crisis has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but as we’ll show, it’s a problem that has been with us for much, much longer. In this series Sarah talks with tenants, landlords, housing advocates, academics, and government officials to illuminate the complexity of housing in this moment — and its dire consequences for those suffering from illness, unemployment, and the threat of eviction. It's a story about economics, race, history and public health, and about a system that's been broken for about as long as it's existed. It's also a story about how, thanks to an unprecedented crisis and the tireless work of activists, things might just be starting to change.
Listen to Parts 2, 3, 4, and the series epilogue.
Contributors to this podcast include students from Brown University and the media collective Signs of Providence. You can learn more about their organization here.
(Photo credit: Steve Ahlquist)
SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. Last, January humanity met its newest enemy, a novel coronavirus that surfaced in Wuhan, China. The virus and COVID-19, the disease it causes, soon began the relentless spread.
SUBJECT 1: Scientists in China are trying to determine if a new virus strain is responsible for a pneumonia outbreak in the city of Wuhan.
SUBJECT 2: Chinese says a number of people are infected by a mysterious--
SUBJECT 3: Until May and that as many as 3.5 million people who were--
SARAH BALDWIN: Over the weeks and months that followed, what had once seemed unthinkable, even alien to Americans, became a reality. Offices and schools closed. Large gatherings were prohibited. People started wearing face masks in public. In our home state of Rhode Island, Governor Gina Raimondo issued a stay at home order on March 28.
Soon almost the entire country was on lockdown. The US economy spiraled. In Rhode Island, the unemployment rate jumped from 4% in January to almost 18% by the end of April. As May 1 approached, one thing became clear. Many people wouldn't be able to pay their rent. So in addition to a public health and economic crisis, the risk of widespread evictions entered the picture too.
This special series of Trending Globally is called "Less To Lean On." We partnered with students from Brown University and the media collective Signs of Providence to look at how the coronavirus has affected evictions in Rhode Island and its capital city. It's a topic that is just one piece of a web of other seemingly intractable issues. And one thing's for sure, eviction was problematic long before there was a pandemic. And while it's a traumatic event all by itself, eviction is also a symptom of much greater ills that haunt this country. A housing crisis, income inequality, and systemic racism.
CROWD: Black lives matter. Black lives matter. Black lives matter.
As the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and so many others remind those of us with the privilege to forget, COVID-19 is not the only pandemic facing the United States.
SUBJECT 4: As a physician, I'm here to say that racism is indeed a public health crisis.
SARAH BALDWIN: COVID-19 has only pulled back the curtain on anti-blackness. Later in this series, we'll reckon with the comorbidity of racism and housing insecurity. Whether America is unable or unwilling to house its citizens, housing insecurity is one of the most pressing issues of our time. We're going to talk with advocates, activists, attorneys, scholars, and people on the ground to understand how the problem started, who it affects, and how we might eventually dig ourselves out of this mess.
Spring Twenty-Twenty was a time of unprecedented uncertainty for everybody, but for many renters, it was like being dealt a triple blow. First came the risk of contracting a potentially fatal illness. Next they or someone in their household may have lost their job. And finally, there was the fear of being evicted. Jordan Mickman is the supervising attorney with the Center for Justice, which provides legal representation for low income people in Rhode Island, including when it comes to housing.
JORDAN MICKMAN: A lot of renters are extremely anxious right now. They're confused, they're frustrated, and they're really angry about the vulnerability of their housing. Folks who've been working and going to school and doing everything that they were supposed to and just didn't have a support system in place to weather a four month unemployment pandemic.
CHRISTIAN: My daughter, they gave her a layoff because she's working ophthalmology center. So they just give her layoff, and they told her she can apply for unemployment benefits. Also my other two step-sons, they give them layoff.
SARAH BALDWIN: That's Christian [? Malvo, ?] a 45-year-old carpenter. He lives with his wife, daughter, stepson, and baby granddaughter.
CHRISTIAN: My only really concern is about my baby granddaughter. [INAUDIBLE] turned 4 years old. [INAUDIBLE]
SARAH BALDWIN: Their home is on the second floor of one of the many three story apartment buildings known as triple deckers that are typical of Providence and the working class towns around it.
CHRISTIAN: Of course, we're worried because the thing is, my wife, she take care of everything for now on. But she had to pay the rent. She had to pay the gas bill, electricity bill, the cable. She had to pay for her car, because she got a loan on that car also. The insurance of the car. We're struggling. We're struggling. We don't know how we're going to pay the rent.
SARAH BALDWIN: With a population of just over one million, Rhode Island is the smallest state in the union, but it's a state that had big housing problems even before the pandemic. In Providence alone, the majority of renters were considered cost burdened. That means they were spending more than 1/3 of their income on rent. For many, it's 1/2.
Every year in the US, 3.6 million eviction cases are filed, leading to one and a half million eviction judgments annually. In Rhode Island in Twenty-Eighteen more than 8,000 evictions were filed, 2,600 of them in Providence alone, a city of fewer than 200,000 people.
Imagine that for a moment. Imagine suddenly having to pack up your possessions. Imagine having to leave some behind. Imagine calling family members or friends to see if your kids can sleep on their couch until you somehow find another place to live or having to find a shelter with beds available that night. And imagine getting to the shelter only to realize it's at capacity.
Eviction has been linked to a wide array of devastating economic and health outcomes. If you're evicted, you're more likely to lose your job, move to a disadvantaged neighborhood, or live in lower quality housing than before. You're also more likely to get sick, suffer from depression, and experience homelessness.
[? Ketya, ?] who works in the health care sector, knows firsthand what eviction feels like. So do her two children. They were living in the tiny working class town of Central Falls when a series of misfortunes lost [? Ketya ?] her job. The landlord kicked them out after a few missed rents. Within three months, [? Ketya's ?] family went from happily housed to sleeping in the car. They eventually found their way to a stable living situation, but the experience left its mark.
SUBJECT 5: I remember one day we had a little issue with I think it was mice in my current apartment, and we had to pack up everything. And my little boy, he was asleep. So I packed everything up and put it on the table. And he woke up freaking out. Oh my god, are we going to lose our house again? What's going on? And until that point, I didn't know how devastating this whole process was for him being so young.
SARAH BALDWIN: And if all that weren't enough, the eviction court record will be attached to your name for the rest of your life, even if you win the case, even if the case is dismissed.
Take away the added stress of a pandemic and eviction is already an event that surfaces a host of other problems, including the extent of and reasons behind the rampant housing insecurity in this country.
MARIJOAN BULL: 3/4 of renter households that would be eligible for federal assistance are unable to get it because there isn't enough funding.
SARAH BALDWIN: That's Marijoan Bull, the author of Housing in America.
MARIJOAN BULL: Housing is unlike, for instance, food assistance under SNAP, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. If you qualify, you will receive the food assistance. Housing has never been that way.
SARAH BALDWIN: It's crucial to point out that some populations are more vulnerable to eviction than others. Research from the ACLU has shown that on average, black renters had evictions filed against them at nearly twice the rate of white renters. Women of color, and particularly black women, are especially vulnerable to eviction for many reasons, including pay disparities and wealth gaps, not to mention more than a century of racist housing policy. If you're not sure what I mean by that or if that sentence makes you raise an eyebrow, this series is for you. We'll be tackling this issue in subsequent episodes.
MARIJOAN BULL: I do want to also really emphasize the issue of racial discrimination and disparity in housing. [INAUDIBLE] provided a good way to sort of highlight that. There's a lot of people who are actually making things happen for those of us who are well off enough to have a pretty easy life of it. Just go to the store and things are there that we need.
All of that rests on people who are housing insecure, because they're not paid enough to get private housing, and there isn't enough affordable housing. There are so many ways that your comfortable life rests on the work and the sacrifice and the precariousness of other people's homes.
SUBJECT 6: Governor Raimondo is giving another important local update.
GINA RAIMONDO: I want to begin as I do every day thanking everybody who is helping us, especially the folks at the Department of Health.
SARAH BALDWIN: On March 17, the Rhode Island courts closed for 60 days. That meant there would be a two month pause in processing evictions. Meanwhile, the state's coronavirus related jobless claims approached 65,000.
GINA RAIMONDO: If you have been laid off due to this coronavirus crisis, you are eligible for unemployment insurance. Additionally, you'll be receiving another $600 a week every week until July 31st.
SARAH BALDWIN: And many also received a $1,200 stimulus check from the feds, which is nice, but here's the problem. In Providence, the median rent for a two bedroom apartment is almost $1,500. So for most families, $1,200 is not enough to cover one month's rent, let alone two or three or more.
GINA RAIMONDO: I've been getting a lot of questions around what are we doing for the homeless? What are we doing for children in poverty? What are we doing for folks who need access to food and clothes and homes and transportation?
SARAH BALDWIN: [? Ketya, ?] whom we heard from earlier, is securely housed now, and she hasn't lost her job. But her experience makes her worry about other people.
SUBJECT 5: How are these people going to be protected when this is all over with? Are they going to have to pay back rent? Are they going to have to pay late fees? What's the law on that?
SARAH BALDWIN: But the state hasn't provided an answer. In fact, Rhode Island received one of the worst ratings in the entire country on The Eviction Lab's COVID-19 scorecard for its poor response. So activists and organizers took matters into their own hands.
CROWD: Stop evictions now. Stop evictions now. Stop evictions now. Stop evictions now.
SARAH BALDWIN: Then on May 4th, Governor Raimondo committed $1.5 million for emergency rental assistance in the form of $5,000 grants, enough money to cover 300 requests. A few hours after the website went live, the money was gone. That same month, a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston predicted that once the unemployment benefits and federal dollars run out, more than 51,000 households in Rhode Island will be at risk of not making rent.
SARAH BALDWIN: On May 28, two days were left before the courts were set to reopen and eviction proceedings would resume. Activists seized the moment.
ELENA SCORPIO: When the courts are scheduled to reopen for eviction proceedings, there are hundreds of people already on the backlog who will be going into eviction proceedings immediately on June 1st.
SARAH BALDWIN: Elena Scorpio is a member of Tenant Network RI, a recently formed group that organized a rally at the statehouse in downtown Providence. On a lukewarm overcast afternoon, protesters in cars and standing in front of the capitol building held signs saying things like, "evictions are cruel," "tax the rich to fund homes for all," and "what is Rhode island's moral compass?" Drivers circled the statehouse in their cars, honking their horns as the governor gave her daily pandemic briefing inside.
ELENA SCORPIO: People are going to have to choose between their health and their homes, their health and their livelihoods. And we find that completely unacceptable.
SARAH BALDWIN: As Elena sees it, in order to tackle this problem, we need to think big, bigger than we have in a long, long time.
ELENA SCORPIO: As Rhode Islanders, we have an opportunity and we have the vision to rethink how our housing market works entirely. We need to rethink housing and acknowledge that housing is a human right.
SARAH BALDWIN: The next day, as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island approached 15,000, Governor Raimondo extended the state of emergency and therefore the eviction moratorium one more month through July 1st. The moratorium doesn't just affect renters, of course. One renter's check is another person's income.
And today the entire rental housing ecosystem is nervously waiting to see what will happen when July 1st rolls around. Eric Hirsch, a professor of sociology at Providence College, has been studying housing issues for decades, all the way back to his days as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, where he helped form a tenant's union, and he is not optimistic.
ERIC HIRSCH: Generally, we have about 1,000 people homeless at any given moment, which is 1,000 too many. But we are about to have many, many thousands if this eviction moratorium isn't put in place.
SARAH BALDWIN: Kristina Contreras Fox, a policy analyst at the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, agrees.
KRISTINA CONTRERAS FOX: We're going to have more families out in the streets who are desperately trying to find shelter in the middle of a pandemic. We're going to see more people going back to unsafe living situations. We're going to see folks who fled domestic violence situations having to make the choice of going back to their abuser and having a home or staying in shelters or staying out of doors, staying in places where they know they're not safe and they could be hurt again.
I'm scared of it. I am scared to think of what's going to happen to our folks, to our community. But what will also happen is we're going to keep fighting. And we're going-- as this problem escalates, so are we. We're going to escalate this fight. We're going to keep trying every single thing that we can to help our folks, because there is no other thing that we can do. And there's no other thing that we should do besides everything that we can. We still have time, and the state has time, and the state can act before July 1st.
SARAH BALDWIN: Let's pause here for a moment and take a look back in time. Since the arrival of Europeans, power in America has meant controlling the land. Indigenous people have seen their land taken away for hundreds of years. Though it's not the same, one very early record of eviction and homelessness in Rhode Island can be traced back to Roger Williams, the 17th century minister and theologian.
As a white European, Williams was unusual in his day for his perception of Native Americans as potential allies. He was also among the first abolitionists. What he's perhaps best known for, though, is his advocacy for religious freedom and the separation of church and state. For those convictions, Puritan leaders accused Williams of spreading new and dangerous ideas and expelled him from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.from the Narragansetts and in: ervants or slaves. And by the:
But through the centuries, waves of immigrants have also sought shelter in this state. Italians, Portuguese, Cape Verdians, and more recently Central Americans and Dominicans. Black Americans from the south came here too as part of the great migrations of the last century.
By the nineteen-seventies, Blacks had become the most highly urbanized segment of American society. That phenomenon and the ensuing backlash led to white flight to the suburbs, the purposeful disinvestment in Black urban communities, segregation by interstate highway and other racist urban planning tricks, and many more of the insidious practices that created the problems that plague housing in America today, including eviction.
One of the myths we tell about this country is that everyone has a right to prosperity and growth. And while some groups, it's true, have been allowed to climb the economic ladder, often by purchasing land or a home, others have been explicitly denied that right. And America has become a very rich nation, so shouldn't we wonder how it is even in the midst of a pandemic and an economic recession that we can't or won't guarantee housing as a basic human right?
You've met a lot of characters in this episode. You'll get to know some of them well before we're done. If you are a tenant, landlord, lawyer, or someone whose eviction related story we should know about, please reach out to us at email@example.com.
This episode of "Less To Lean On" was produced by Oscar [INAUDIBLE] with help from Dan Richards and Jackson [INAUDIBLE]. The theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. There are too many contributors to list here, but you can find them in our show notes. I'm your host, Sarah Baldwin. Thanks for listening.