Rhode Island Tenants Fight and Win!

On August 1, 2005, 193 residents at the Barbara Jordan I properties in Providence, Rhode Island, received a letter informing them that the owner did not intend to renew the federal contract subsidizing their homes. The project-based Section 8 contract for their scattered-site apartments in the South Providence neighborhood was due to expire in one year.

Under federal law, private owners sign 20-year contracts to participate in the Section 8 program, receiving federal subsidies in return for keeping the apartments affordable to low- and very low-income tenants. When their contracts expire, owners have the option to renew or leave the program – to “opt out.” Due to weak federal protections, the country has lost over 300,000 of these units since 1996.

Assisted by the Rhode Island HUD Tenant Project, the tenants of Barbara Jordan I organized the first-ever independent tenant association in the over 20-year history of their development and led a successful campaign to save their homes. The campaign included a lawsuit against the property owner by Rhode Island Housing, the state housing finance agency, and an amendment to strengthen the state’s Affordable Housing Preservation Act (AHPA). One year later, the owner withdrew her opt-out notice and signed a new one-year contract.

More than Self-Interest

On a cold November evening in 2005, about 80 tenants turned out to the first meeting organized by the tenant project and voted overwhelmingly to form a tenant association; several volunteered for an informal steering committee. As a next step, organizers developed a series of workshops explaining what was at stake.

When they received the notice from the landlord in August, most tenants did not have a clear picture of the consequences of an opt-out. Federal law provides Section 8 vouchers for eligible tenants when project-based contracts are terminated, so tenants who called their manager to ask about the opt-out notice were told not to worry. Vouchers could be used to stay or move, and many tenants hoped their vouchers could be a “golden ticket” to a new home.

The workshops explained the pitfalls of vouchers: due to budget cuts at the Providence Housing Authority, Section 8 vouchers were worth less than the fair market rent, with their value frozen at 2005 levels despite rapidly rising housing costs. Utility reimbursements would be limited to a monthly allowance; tenants would have to cover excess heating costs. Due to a housing shortage and landlord discrimination, one-third of Providence residents who were issued Section 8 vouchers had to return them unused. Most significantly, if the project-based contract was not renewed at Barbara Jordan, future families in need could not rent those apartments at affordable rates. The state would lose 193 badly needed low-income units.

Tenants who attended the workshops voted nearly unanimously to fight to keep their apartments affordable by convincing the owner to renew her contract. For many, the decision was not based on self-interest but out of concern for future families in need. One tenant who raised three daughters in Barbara Jordan I explained, “One day my daughter will buy us a house and we’ll move out of this apartment. I’m fighting for the next family that needs to live here.”

Pressure on Two Fronts

By January, the tenant association was ready to involve the media. State representatives and city councilors joined the tenants for a press conference, resulting in a feature story on a popular TV news channel and front-page coverage in a section of the Providence Journal.

Meanwhile, tenants pursued a two-pronged strategy to convince the owner to renew. The first approach used a Rhode Island law requiring owners to give two years’ notice of an opt-out. Federal law requires only a one-year notice. The owner of Barbara Jordan I had failed to comply with the stronger state requirements. Through a series of meetings, tenants would try to convince Rhode Island Housing to enforce the law.

Tenants and organizers’ second approach was to file a bill in the state legislature to strengthen the AHPA. State law already provided for the right of first refusal in case of prepayments or sale, meaning that an owner had to make an offer of sale to a tenant association, Rhode Island Housing, the local housing authority and municipal government before prepaying a HUD mortgage or selling a HUD-subsidized property. Each of the four entities then had the opportunity to prevent the affordable housing from going market rate. Unfortunately, the law provided no safeguards in opt-out cases. At the suggestion of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, and with assistance from Rhode Island Legal Services and the National Housing Law Project, organizers introduced a bill to eliminate the opt-out loophole. Tenants from Barbara Jordan I and other organized HUD buildings packed House and Senate hearings, many of them making their first-ever trip to the State House.

Attendance at tenant association meetings dwindled as the months passed, but a dedicated core of tenants continued to go to state house hearings and meet with officials from HUD and Rhode Island Housing. In May the tenants’ bill to improve the AHPA passed the House. In early June, Rhode Island Housing agreed to file a lawsuit to enforce the state’s two-year notice law. Later that month, the Senate unanimously passed the tenants’ bill, and on July 3 the governor signed it into law. While still unsure of the final outcome of their struggle, the tenants coordinated a potluck cookout to celebrate the bill’s passage.

On July 11, two days after the tenants’ celebration, their landlord quietly submitted a request for contract renewal to the local HUD office. By agreement with the owner, HUD kept the request secret for two weeks. Then, with six days remaining before the contract’s July 31 expiration, the mayor’s office notified the press that the owner had agreed to a one-year renewal “after a lengthy meeting” in his office.

Tenants knew the real story. The owner agreed to a one-year renewal after they organized, involved local politicians and the media, joined forces with other tenant associations to pass a bill through the State House and convinced Rhode Island Housing to initiate a lawsuit. But they did not begrudge the owner or mayor the opportunity to take a piece of the credit. Upon hearing the news of the contract renewal, tenant Cecilia Arias commented, “That shows us something happens when you push.”

Next Steps

The one-year renewal is not the end of the story. The mayor’s press release indicated that the owner would use the next year to seek a long-term agreement with HUD, and that if an agreement could not be reached, she might again attempt to leave the project-based Section 8 program. However, to comply with state law, the owner must give tenants two years’ notice of any renewed intent to opt out. In addition, the newly amended AHPA restricts her ability to leave the Section 8 program without first offering to sell to a buyer who could keep the project affordable.

But tenants and organizers learned this year that having a state law on the books is not good enough. Tenants must remain organized and vigilant to make sure the law is enforced.

Barbara Jordan I tenants have continued meeting to make sure the contract is renewed for the long term, and to work on maintenance and security issues. According to tenant Maria Pimentel, “We’ve won the first part, but to win the rest we must keep fighting.”

Pimentel says that when she is walking down the street, she now recognizes and waves to neighbors she has met at tenant meetings. As a member of the tenant association, she says, “I’ve learned how to share problems with others, and how to fight to obtain what we want.”

She and her neighbors advise other tenants: “You must unite. United, anything can be accomplished.”

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