The Providence Journal recently published a salacious story of a tenant-landlord dispute, where the landlord of a luxury apartment was unable to remove a tenant when her lease expired. The piece depicted the tenant as a charlatan lawyer who decided to overstay her lease. However, this article does not reflect the reality of most tenant-landlord disputes.
Amplifying this outlier incident does a disservice to the actual experiences of most tenants, many of whom are evicted not because they are manipulating the law, but because they cannot find a new place to move to when a landlord decides that it is time for them to leave. The article also ignores the fact that the Landlord-Tenant Act balances the rights of both parties and address instances like this. It depicted the situation as lawlessness under government moratorium, but experience shows that the legal system provided a remedy. Instead of analyzing the legal rights of the two sides, the piece focused on irrelevant personal traits of the parties. Legal rights to housing should not be contingent on personal qualities.
It doesn’t matter whether a tenant was divorced or disbarred. While some tenants may have taken advantage of their landlords, the Act is designed to protect the latter just as much as it protects the former. Creating a tenant villain also fuels the idea that pandemic-era social safety nets, like the CARES Act and the CDC’s housing moratorium, are abused more than they are needed. The temporary ban on nonpayment evictions was implemented to protect not the bizarre situation referenced in the article, but the millions of low-income employees who have lost work due to lockdowns, illness, and more, and would be homeless if evicted.
Since Rhode Island’s courts reopened in June, 1,500 evictions have been filed for nonpayment of rent. This reflects the reality that thousands of Rhode Islanders have lost their jobs and income and are unable to pay for their housing. These nonpayment evictions have been filed in spite of the widespread support for a moratorium and the public health imperative to keep people stably housed. These numbers show not an army of con artists, but a public health crisis.
Giving a megaphone to stories like the Newport situation undermines the efficacy of social safety nets, misrepresents the role of law, and pits the public against tenants.