AG: Major R.I. landlord placed profits over ‘basic human dignity’

Lawsuit claims Pioneer Investments violated state rental, lead hazard, and consumer protection laws

By: - June 6, 2023 4:24 pm

Holes in ceilings, cracked paint on walls and ceilings and missing exterior siding are documented in the lawsuit filed Tuesday against Pioneer Investments LLC. (Photos via Rhode Island Office of Attorney General)

Rodent infestations. No water. No heat. Cracked windows. Cracked walls. And worst of all, children with lead poisoning.

This list of complaints is outlined in a lawsuit filed Tuesday by the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office against Pioneer Investments LLC, which owns and operates more than 175 residential rental units across Rhode Island. The suit was met with praise from advocates and current tenants.

“Let’s cut right to it — as alleged, profits are being placed over basic human dignity and that cannot stand,” Attorney General Peter Neronha said in a statement. “In Rhode Island, nearly 500 children are lead poisoned every year. It is preventable, and the toll that these children and we as a community pay is enormous.”

The lawsuit alleges that Pioneer and its president, Anurag Sureka, ignored lead hazard laws, landlord-tenant laws, housing code regulations, and engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices throughout the state. Additionally, Neronha’s office claims that Pioneer improperly charged and overcharged late fees on tenants.

Danielle Quick said the wood floors of her rental smelled like dog pee when they got wet. The unit had uncovered electrical outlets, pest problems, and had a leak that forced her family to sleep in the living room. She likened her experience to getting fixes to her apartment to pulling teeth. 

“We couldn’t shower, we had to drink bottled water, but they didn’t want to take responsibility,” Quick said in a statement released through Reclaim RI, a tenant advocacy group.

“That’s why we had to stand up to them and fight back. They can’t just push people around, collect rent, and not hold up their end of the bargain.”

 Sureka could not immediately be reached for comment.

A RIDOH analysis found that at least 11 children have had detectable levels of lead, and at least five children have been lead-poisoned while residing in Pioneer’s properties.

Christian Velazquez said exposure to lead paint in his family’s rental has ruined his kids’ lives. He said his 3-year-old son cannot speak or express himself, only screaming the need for food or diaper changes. His daughter also has problems controlling emotions due to elevated lead levels.

“Every morning we look at our beautiful babies and we see what [Sureka] did to them,” Velazquez said. “The worst part of it all is that when I told him my kids were poisoned he shrugged it off. What kind of human does that?”

The worst part of it all is that when I told him my kids were poisoned he shrugged it off. What kind of human does that?

– Christian Velazquez, Pioneer tenant

The AG’s office said it is seeking to have Pioneer properties provide code-complaint, lead-safe housing, and complete and truthful lead disclosures to tenants, along with restitution to tenants.

Neronha is also calling for the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee and report on Pioneer’s compliance with their obligations to assess each property and correct conditions in full compliance with state and federal laws.

Shana Crandell, a tenant organizer for Reclaim RI, said the action taken by the AG’s office “a great victory for Pioneer tenants, and for all poor and working-class tenants across Rhode Island.”

“Today’s news should be a warning to every negligent, abusive, and predatory landlord in the state that the era of collecting rent for abhorrent conditions is over,” she said. 

Along with the lawsuit, Reclaim RI also calls on the General Assembly to pass legislation that would create a statewide rental registry. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Meghan Kallman, a Pawtucket Democrat, was held for further study by the Senate’s Housing and Municipal Government Committee on May 10.

“Pioneer is far from an isolated problem,” Crandell said. “Slumlords are the norm for poor and working-class tenants across Rhode Island.”


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Christopher Shea
Christopher Shea

Christopher Shea covers politics, the criminal justice system and transportation for the Rhode Island Current.