People gather in Room 313 at the State House for a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, June 1, 2023. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)
PROVIDENCE — Legislation limiting the use of credit and criminal background checks on prospective tenants would be a step towards equity and resolution of Rhode Island’s housing crisis, supporters said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing at the State House Thursday.
Sponsored by Pawtucket Democrat Sen. Meghan Kallman, S135, also known as the Fair Chance in Housing Act would limit credit checks on potential tenants to only the past three years and criminal background checks to 10 years. Even then, it would only take into account felony charges such as murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, sexual assault, methamphetamine production, arson, larceny, or any crime that lands a person on the sexual assault registry.
“It addresses issues of discrimination in the extremely competitive rental market,” Kallman said.
Among the five witnesses testifying in the bill’s favor was Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos.
“People are able to really have a second chance at finding a home,” Matos said in her testimony. “With the crisis that we have right now with housing, this is another opportunity to help families find a home.”
Margaux Morrisseau, deputy director of the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness, said that the legislation was a step towards equity for low-income communities and communities of color.
“This bill will help to remove barriers to housing and help to reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness in this state,” she said.
Morisseau said in her testimony that up to half of recently incarcerated individuals experience homelessness upon leaving prison. Given the state’s incarceration rate of 280 per 100,000 population, that leaves a lot of Rhode Islanders on the streets.
“They need a place to live in order to stay out of jail,” she said.
It addresses issues of discrimination in the extremely competitive rental market.
– Pawtucket Democrat Sen. Meghan Kallman on her bill known as the Fair Chance in Housing Act
Jeremy Costa, a formerly incarcerated man and activist, said he supported the bill, though he said it did not go far enough.
“I see a lot of ways this could help the re-entry of people into society,” he said. “I do think that 10 years is a large window. I don’t feel it should reach beyond seven years.”
“I just hope that you guys understand this is a major piece of legislation,” Costa continued. “It could clean up a lot of the issues we’re dealing with homelessness.”
The only landlord to testify at the hearing was Katie Grandowski, a Providence landlord and student at the Roger Williams University School of Law.
“Landlords are not fragile,” she said in her testimony in favor of S135 at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “This law protects us.”
The committee voted unanimously to hold the bill for further study
Lead legislation moves through committee
Three bills before the committee focused on lead poisoning mitigation passed out of the committee, adding momentum to state efforts to mitigate lead by subsidizing the replacement of lead water service pipes on homes two days after the full Senate approved S2, the Lead Poisoning Prevention Act. Sponsored by Senate President Sen. Dominick Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, that legislation creates a program to fund the replacement of public and private lead water service lines.
The bills passed Thursday included:
- S739, introduced by Sen. Valarie Lawson, an East Providence Democrat. It would allow property owners to be fined double or triple damages plus attorney fees when they fail to meet basic lead safety standards. Passed by voice vote onto the Senate floor.
- S804, introduced by Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Dawn Euer, a Newport Democrat. It would create a statewide registry of properties built before 1978, when lead stopped being used in paint and pipes and require such properties be certified as lead safe. Passed in an 8-2 vote with only Sen. Leonidas Raptakis, a Coventry Democrat, and Committee Vice Chair Sen. Frank Lombardi, a Cranston Democrat, voting against.
- S709, introduced by Sen. Tiara Mack, a Providence Democrat. It would allow tenants to petition for the creation of an escrow account to deposit rent when a property is not in accordance with lead safety standards. Funds would be accessible to a landlord once a property is deemed in line with standards. The bill prohibits the eviction of tenants seeking such remedies. Six Democrats voted in favor with four Democrats voting against, including: Committee Vice Chair Sen. Frank Lombardi, of Cranston; Sen. Leonidas Raptakis, of Coventry; Sen. David Tikoian, of Smithfield; and Sen. John Burke, of West Warwick.
The bills now move to the full Senate for a debate and vote, but no date has yet been scheduled.
A companion Ruggerio’s bill in the House of Representatives, H5007, sponsored by Rep. William O’Brien, a North Providence Democrat, went before the House Finance Committee for its first hearing on April 25, when it was held for further study. It has yet to be scheduled for a committee vote.
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