SEN. WILLIAM J. Conley Jr. and Rep. Grace Diaz filed legislation that would implement a moratorium on evictions and mortgage foreclosures during a declared state of emergency. / PBN FILE PHOTO/NICOLE DOTZENROD

PROVIDENCE – Sen. William J. Conley Jr., D-East Providence, and Rep. Grace Diaz, D-Providence, filed legislation that would implement a moratorium on evictions and mortgage foreclosures during a declared state of emergency and would establish an eviction diversion mediation program within the Rhode Island District Court.

During the current health crisis, Rhode Islanders would be protected from displacement, and ultimately decrease the risk of spreading the virus further. The bill also creates a pathway for landlords and tenants to mediate agreements to address any residential lease violations using trained housing mediators within the District Court.

Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio says there was an affordable housing crisis in Rhode Island well before the pandemic, and the coronavirus’ impact on the economy has only exacerbated the issue.

“I am hopeful that more federal assistance will be authorized, but even without it we must act to help Rhode Islanders struggling to stay in their homes,” said Ruggerio to the Providence Business News. “I am hopeful that the Senate will have the opportunity to consider this legislation soon.”

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House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello was not immediately available to comment on the proposed legislation.

Similar programs are in place in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, and have been effective in resolving housing disputes before eviction proceedings take place, according to a statement by Homes RI, a coalition of organizations that work to increase the supply of safe and affordable homes in the state.

“During a time when the consequences of losing your home can be so devastating for your health and the health of others, we must protect Rhode Islanders from eviction and foreclosure while we are all experiencing this declared critical emergency,” said Conley.

The proposed legislation comes as affordable-housing advocates are expecting a flood of evictions in the coming months as those left jobless have lost their additional $600 in federal unemployment insurance benefits. As previously reported, since the court resumed taking new cases on June 2, there were only 660 new eviction cases filed through July 30, which is just a little more than half of the 1,254 cases filed during the same period a year ago, according to R.I. Judiciary spokesman Craig Berke.

“This is a critical time to protect Rhode Islanders who are hardest hit by the pandemic, especially those who are on the front lines of the economy and are essential workers,” said Diaz in a statement. “This legislation will protect people and communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.”

The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston estimated that 13% of Rhode Island’s homeowners with a mortgage were at risk of missing a monthly housing payment. A National Low Income Housing Coalition report said between 100,000 to 143,000 Rhode Islanders were in danger of eviction because of the pandemic.

“Eviction endangers the public’s health during this ongoing pandemic and declared state of emergency. And with so many Rhode Islanders facing job and income loss, unpaid rent also further erodes the supply of already too scarce affordable rentals unless a foreclosure moratorium is in place,” said Jennifer Wood, director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice. “We need an immediate moratorium on evictions and foreclosures to protect the public’s health and prevent a mortgage foreclosure crisis even bigger than the devastating 2008-2009 crisis.”

Some landlord advocates remain skeptical. Keith Fernandes, president of the Providence Apartment Association said that once again, landlords have to spend money to work out a deal.

“The question is, what happens if there is an agreement? The landlord takes a cut, but then the next month, [what if] the tenant doesn’t pay rent again,” said Fernandes. “Now the landlord is already out hundreds for attorney fees and rent already.

“No landlord will accept this program unless there is a tenant accountability part.”

Alexa Gagosz is a PBN staff writer. Contact her at Gagosz@PBN.com.