Housing Advocates Want Funding

PROVIDENCE, RI - About 125 protesters gathered inside the State House rotunda Thursday to demand that state lawmakers reinstate millions of dollars in funding to build affordable housing and enact laws to stem the tide of rent-paying tenants who are losing their homes to foreclosure.

One group of about 25 protesters – including more than a dozen members of Hope City, a community of homeless people living in tents under the Crawford Street Bridge in Providence – marched from Kennedy Plaza to the State House under an unremitting drizzle, some carrying small wooden crosses inscribed with the names of homeless people who have died.

"Bail out the people, not the banks!" the protesters chanted as they marched past a full parking lot next to the Capital Grille restaurant, and passed Waterplace Towers, with its banner advertising luxury condos.

Inside, Jose Guillermo Gonzalez joined dozens of others camped out on the rotunda's marble steps. Gonzalez, 52, lives with his wife and 9-year-old daughter in a rental apartment at 77 Waldo St. which is in foreclosure. "Today, the gas got cut off," he said, through a translator. He held up three fingers. "This is the third time I've lived in a house with a foreclosure."

The second time, he said, he was told his family would receive money to move out. They never did. Instead, his family was evicted and all their clothes and furniture were put out on the sidewalk. That was last December.

Gonazalez, who walks with a cane, made the 3½-mile journey to the State House on foot because, he said, he wants state lawmakers to pass a law that would allow him and his family to remain as renters in their home.

A bill introduced by Rep. Joseph Almeida (H-5933) would make it illegal to evict tenants from foreclosed properties except for "just cause," such as nonpayment of rent or failure to comply with their lease. The law, similar to those enacted in other states, is an approach which has its roots in the national tenants' rights movement dating to the Great Depression.

In Rhode Island, foreclosures of rental properties are driving up the homeless population, according to a new report released by the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless.

The number of people in emergency shelters or "transitional housing" who cited foreclosure as the reason for their homelessness tripled during the last eight months compared to the same period last year, according to data compiled by Eric L. Hirsch, a sociology professor at Providence College, for the coalition. (Transitional housing, Hirsch said, refers to federally funded programs which provide temporary housing for anywhere from 90 days to two years.)

In January and February of this year, there were 1,806 people in shelters or transitional housing, up 36 percent from the first two months of 2008, according to the report.

"We are here in the State House, which is our house, to send a clear message to elected officials," Amos House director Linda Watkins said, addressing the protesters. "We are counting on you do to what is required to represent the people of Rhode Island … not just the rich people, but particularly the poor and most vulnerable."

In addition to enacting laws to protect tenants, she said, the lawmakers also need to reinstate $7.5 million in the governor's fiscal 2010 budget for the Neighborhood Opportunities Program, which provides state funds to build affordable housing. The money enables developers to set rents low enough to serve the poorest households and people with disabilities. (The state cut all but $2.5 million last year that had been committed to projects, and eliminated it entirely from the fiscal 2010 budget, said Brenda J. Clement, executive director of the Statewide Housing Coalition.)

Scott Wolfe, executive director of Grow Smart Rhode Island, urged state legislators to restore funding for the Neighborhood Opportunities Program. A state budget which "only cuts and fails to invest in what will make us stronger," he said, is an "unacceptable response" to the budget crisis.

Naomi Caniff, 33, listened from the rotunda steps as she held her 2-month-old daughter. Caniff, who struggles with addiction and mental illness, said she joined the protest because she worries that state lawmakers will no longer finance the program which provides her with counseling and housing. "Without funding," she said, "I'd be homeless."