210729ind Renters

North Kingstown resident Kathleen Budrock, pictured here at her apartment Monday afternoon, is one of an untold number of local renters living in South County who was recently forced to move after the landlord she rented her Narragansett home from sold the property. With the housing market still seeing unprecedented demand, many local families may find themselves in a similar situation when a ban on evictions in Rhode Island comes to an end later this week.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Val Williams and her family are on the verge of having nowhere to live.

The 56-year-old breadwinner for her family, which includes two kidney transplant recipients and a disabled mother-in-law, is scared. She has to be out of her Stone Bridge Drive rental house at least by the middle of August, if not beforehand.

Her problem is worsened by having eight others, who mostly include relatives, live with her in the house with three bedrooms and one and a half baths. All need somewhere to go.

Bethany Delon, whose young son is still recovering from stage four cancer treatments, is pregnant. She doesn’t know where she, her four children and a soon-to-be born baby, and husband will go.

While they co-own a Narragansett property, they are being forced to sell it, said Delon who has a Sept. 1 deadline to find other housing.

“We really do not know what to do. We are praying on a miracle to happen within the next couple of weeks. We never thought we would get to a point in life where we are working and homeless,” she told The Independent this week.

These and other similar situations with no-where-to-go renters have become the dark side of the sunny house-selling boom. Property owners are capitalizing on the massive increases in value leaving a scarcity of rentals.

It is frightening many renters who say they might become homeless for the first time in their lives.  

One report puts Rhode Island having 6.5% rate of adults behind on their rent or mortgage. Of these renters and homeowners, 15,152 — or 28.0% of them — are at risk of eviction or foreclosure, the report said.

The housing eviction moratorium ends July 31 and puts these kinds of renters at even more risk of homelessness, say housing advocates.


Personal Stories

Personal hardship stories of these renters are also a centerpiece of the lives captured in the tumbling waves of a post-pandemic housing bonanza for the lucky owners.

Kathleen Budrock had been living in Narragansett with a roommate and was given short notice in late spring that the landlord was selling property in June. It was an unexpected and desperate search that eventually ended by relocating to North Kingstown.

Jessica Robinson, rents a one-bedroom apartment on Church Street, with her husband, Fred, and 15-year-old step-son who is autistic. They’ve been hunting for a rental in South Kingstown for nearly two years.

“It’s been hard, very hard. They’ve only given me six months to look for something,” she said about the rules for using housing vouchers that the family needs to make ends meet. The vouchers are federally subsidized rental coupons in which the tenant pays a portion of the rent.   

“When I tell them it’s a Section 8 (federally subsidized) situation, they don’t take us. When tell them we have voucher, they we don’t accept it,” she said about landlords looking to get top-dollar in this hot market with rising values each week.

However, landlords cannot legally deny vouchers with the passage of a recent law. Instead, though, they “deny” by establishing a rental price that neither the voucher or tenant can meet, according to housing advocates.

Then there is Sandra Pates, who has just given up.

Pates works for the Jonnycake Center for Hope in Peace Dale. She is raising her four “tween” grandchildren with their other grandmother. 

They have a voucher and used it to rent from a private landlord and then eventually moved into Meadowbrook Apartments in South Kingstown.

It is a three-bedroom apartment now accommodating six people. Their grandson has a room, three granddaughters are together in one small room, the other grandmother has a room and Pates has been sleeping on the couch for years. 

“We have fielded multiple calls from tenants facing this situation in just the past few days.  These folks are shocked, stressed, and scrambling,” Kate Brewster, executive director of the Jonnycake Center, told The Independent this week.

“We were concerned about the shortage of affordable housing before the pandemic, now we fear a new epidemic is around the corner – increased homelessness and displacement,” she added.

Williams summed up the situation in simple terms. “In the summer time the tourists come, in August the URI students come. It’s very hard to find something for a family.”


Scarcity is Routine

Scarcity is a problem facing anyone looking — regardless of ability to pay — and it’s hitting low- and very low-income people with a sledgehammer.

“The U.S. has a shortage of 6.8 million rental homes affordable and available to extremely low-income renters, whose household incomes are at or below the poverty guideline or 30% of their area median income,” according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

It means, in essence, only 37 affordable and available rental homes exist for every 100 extremely low-income renter households. Extremely low-income renters face a shortage in every state and major metropolitan area.

A year ago the state Commission of Health Advocacy and Equity reported that there were no communities in Rhode Island with sufficient low- to moderate-income housing units.  Most communities have one affordable housing unit for every five eligible households.

Real estate agents have noted that the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the housing market. One aspect particular to South County is that many part-time summer residents became year-round ones because they could work from home and escape COVID hot spots in cities, such as New York and Boston.

This change took rental properties off the market and created a surge in demand.

With few homes or apartments available, prices have shot up for all properties. In addition, real estate sales are booming and leading landlords to sell properties for record prices, said those involved with real estate transactions.

For those caught in the squeeze, it’s a difficult situation for town officials to ease. Several said they don’t have the resources to eliminate the problem.

Abel Collins, president of the South Kingstown Town Council said, “The town is not currently looking to address these kinds of situations in any direct fashion. Our focus has been to address the affordable housing crisis by developing policies to encourage the construction of more affordable units in town.”

He said that the town cannot run an effective rental assistance program, but instead depends on the Jonnycake Center and the town’s housing authority to assist.

While the town gives both financial support, “it’s obviously not enough to change the dynamics of a housing market like this. In addition to local nonprofits, the SK Housing Authority is the best avenue for the town to offer emergency housing support.”

He said that the town council could ramp up financial resources to organizations helping renters with pandemic-related federal funds, but would need to show the pandemic caused the affordable housing crisis.

“People are being forced to spend unsustainable amounts of their income on housing, and unless something changes dramatically, I fear that we will see a wave of homelessness in communities across the United States…It’s such a massive problem that it is definitely going to take state and federal resources to adequately address it,” he said.

On the state side, Gov. Dan McKee has proposed as part of his budget a real-estate transfer tax which in total generates $6.9 million.

“These proposals include a new dedicated funding stream for housing production, strengthened leadership and collaboration in state government, and new partnerships with cities and towns. The funds will be used to fill gaps in projects…and to partner with cities and towns on enabling more housing,” said McKee’s spokesman Matt Sheaff.

The program, once fully underway, is expected to produce close to 200 units of housing each year. It represents about a 15% increase over the state’s housing production levels, he said.

 “This proposal is in addition to the $65 million housing bond passed in March. For too long, the state has fallen behind its neighbors on housing production. It is important that we build a system that will ensure investment year after year,” said Sheaff.

Recognizing a more immediate need, Brewster said, the Jonnycake Center started a program it hopes will encourage landlords to think in more socially responsible terms and receive some assistance should issues develop with tenants.

It offers money to cover unpaid rent or excess damage, property maintenance services, case management staff to work with problem tenants and referrals of tenants coached on maintaining good relationships with their landlords.

For prospective tenants, the center offers financial assistance, help with finding housing and case management for other services needed.

“Our local economy requires workers to support tourism and hospitality, health care for the aging, and our beloved agriculture and fishing industries. Without additional interventions, many of these families and workers will be forced out of town,” she said.

Brewster said that these incentives can assist with addressing that same problem local businesses have mentioned — a lack of help because staff cannot afford to live in the area or find housing.

“By offering a package of incentives designed to improve the rental experience for both landlords and tenants, we are hopeful that a few landlords will step forward and work with us so that local families like Val’s can stay close to their families, jobs, doctors, and schools they love,” she said.

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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