Help available for those struggling to pay rent, mortgages

Help available for those struggling to pay rent, mortgages

Despite a federal moratorium on evictions, which has been extended through March 31 under President Joseph Biden’s administration, landlords are still finding ways to evict tenants during the pandemic, but there is help available, say local community leaders.

“We want you to know your rights,” said Camilo Viveiros, executive director of the George Wiley Center in Pawtucket, a group working with low-income Rhode Islanders to advocate for systematic changes and create social and economic justice through changes in public policy. “Even when you have strong protections out there, if people don’t know their rights or responsibilities in terms of filling out certain paperwork, those rights aren’t exercised.”

On the flip side, said Viveiros, there have been instances around the country of landlords who have decreased or forgiven rent, and there’s help for landlords who are struggling financially due to tenants not paying rent. He said it’s important to figure out how to keep people safe and do no harm during the pandemic. “That means no evictions,” he said.

“COVID has been hard on a lot of Rhode Islanders, especially those experiencing housing instability,” Christine Hunsinger, of the state’s Department of Commerce, told The Breeze. “We are hopeful that with measures the state has taken so far and will continue to take with federal resources that we will be able to meet the needs of renters and homeowners going forward (as the pandemic continues).”

According to Hunsinger, evictions are down approximately 40 percent from this time last year, due to a combination of the federal eviction moratorium, periods of the courts being closed, and enhanced unemployment benefits.

That said, Hunsinger and Viveiros both noted that folks are still being evicted if they’re in violation of their lease in a way other than not being able to pay their rent.

During the pandemic, the state has been able to help more than 2,000 people with rental assistance, totaling $7.5 million paid out so far, and applications are still being processed, Hunsinger noted. As part of the program if a landlord agrees to take the money, renters are given three months protection from eviction.

The state is also slated to receive $200 million that can be used for rental assistance, but a new program is not up and running yet, she added.

For homeowners struggling to pay mortgages, she noted that there has been a federal forbearance program in place that allowed people to delay payments. Biden’s administration is expected to ask federal agencies to extend moratoriums on foreclosures. Rhode Island Housing also established the Hardest Hit Fund Rhode Island, a COVID-19 mortgage payment assistance program, which is open until the funds run out. For more, visit www.rihousing.com/hhfri .

Hunsinger noted that when the moratorium and forbearances are lifted, people will be expected to pay back their rent and mortgage dues, which is why work is being done to try to align resources and funding for those who are struggling.

Staff at the George Wiley Center have been working with people facing evictions, including a longtime member of the center, Judy Jorge, of Central Falls. Viveiros said staff are available to connect people with legal services, such as R.I. Legal Services and the Center for Justice, as well as assist them with filling out applications to receive funding. For example, the state created Safe Harbor, an eviction diversion program, administered through the United Way of Rhode Island, which uses funds from the CARES Act to help tenants pay their rent.

“A lot of folks don’t have access to forms online,” he said, adding that language is another barrier for those whose primary language is not English.

With Safe Harbor, he added, the landlord has to be a voluntary participant, so George Wiley Center staff also try to encourage people to speak with their landlords about agreeing to the process.

“Right now we have multiple cases,” Viveiros said, adding that the best scenario is when they can help tenants apply for funding and show landlords that money is on the way.

He noted that Providence-based group Direct Action for Rights and Equality is another resource people can use.

“We need to be creative in this crisis, and that’s going to require passing some relief that we’ve been asking for for a long time,” he said. That includes building housing stability and protecting more vulnerable populations, he noted, adding that he’s hoping protections help stabilize and build support for renters in a way that was needed before the pandemic hit.

His advice to the community is to help family, friends, and neighbors who might be facing eviction to understand their rights and get legal assistance if needed. “That’s what we try to do,” he said.