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Russ Partridge, director of the Westerly WARM Center. Harold Hanka, The Westerly Sun

With the federal eviction moratorium lifted as of today, a simmering housing crisis could become far worse and push families and individuals onto the street in desperate need of shelter, experts say.

Expiration of the moratorium, which was in place for about 16 months in various forms and was intended to help those in need and slow the spread of COVID-19, comes as cases of the virus are again on the increase. The situation has service providers worried.

"I have the sense that we've just been holding back the tide. There are more people on the street because shelters have had to decrease the number of beds because of social distancing. It's a housing crisis that is already happening but has the potential to get so much worse," said Russ Partridge, executive director of the WARM Center. The Westerly-based organization provides a shelter for the homeless, meals for the hungry, and other services.

Partridge and others who work with those who are homeless or in danger of losing their homes encouraged renters who have seen their income reduced because of the virus to apply for assistance through RentReliefRI, a program run by Rhode Island Housing, a quasi-state agency that provides housing services and is administering the state's $200 million share of rent relief funds from the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

Qualified families and individuals can get assistance with back and future rent and utilities through RentReliefRI. Assistance is available for rent back to April of 2020. Assistance with security deposits and a $50 monthly internet stipend is also available.

Assistance through the program is scheduled to be available through September 2024. Tri-County Community Action Agency, which serves both the northern region of the state and Washington County, is working as a partner agency with Rhode Island Housing for the RentReliefRI program.

In addition to regional partners, Rhode Island Housing is using a 130-person call center and its own staff to administer the program.  Christine Hunsinger, chief strategy and innovation officer for Rhode Island Housing, encouraged those who think they might qualify for the program to inquire. The agency anticipates higher demand for the services now that landlords can evict tenants who are behind on rent.

"I'm not sure that it's real to people. I think once it lifts you'll see a sense of urgency," Hunsinger said.

The program launched in March in Rhode Island but was slowed by technical issues until mid-May when it was stabilized with new software from a new vendor. As of late last week, statewide there had been about 8,000 applications that were started but not completed, about 2,075 completed applications, 914 applications under review, 1,226 applications had been approved for financial assistance, and 720 applications were denied or withdrawn.

In some cases, Hunsiger said, individuals might have remained employed but saw reduced income due to a reduction in hours. Others may have relied on savings to pay their rent but may now face challenges meeting their financial obligations.

"This program is for them — to really help people get back on their feet," Hunsinger said.

In most cases, the rental assistance is paid directly to landlords, many of whom are also struggling because of COVID-19, Hunsinger said.

"They are taking a financial hit too, especially a lot of the smaller landlords who use those dollars to pay their mortgage," Hunsinger said.

Nationally, states have struggled to get the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds to those who need them.

"The $200 million will be a really good thing. If we can get it on street in time, it will help a lot of people out," Partridge said.

The WARM Center, Partridge said, is seeing new people who are in need of the agency's services on a daily basis. The pandemic's apparent effect on the housing market is also a factor, Partidge said, adding that the center has heard from several clients who were forced to find new housing following sales of rental properties and conversion of the units into single-family houses.

"It's creating a whole new level of potential homelessness and, in many cases, hurting people who are 50 and older," Partridge said.

One such couple — a man in his 60s and a 58-year-old woman, were forced to find new accommodations after more than 15 years renting the same place.

"And they have no prospects because for most affordable or low-income housing the waiting lists are substantial," Partridge said.

Without the assistance of Rhode Island Housing, the Rhode Island Foundation, the United Way and other foundations, Partridge said the state would be faced with more than a housing crisis, which he said has the potential to "get much worse."

"The way these organizations have stepped up over the past 18 months is amazing. We would have a humanitarian crisis without what they have done," Partridge said.

The Jonnycake Ceter of Westerly, which serves Westerly, Charlestown, Hopkinton, and Richmond, has seen an increase during the pandemic in individuals and families seeking assistance with rent, utilities, heat and food, said Sarah Cote, the center's social services program director. In addition to providing financial assistance, the center also makes referrals, when appropriate, including to RentReliefRI.

"We've definitely seen a lot of new families receiving services for the first time, whether it's because of a COVID-19 diagnosis, or layoffs, or waiting for unemployment benefits to come through," Cote said.

Cote said she expects an uptick in requests for services due to the eviction moratorium expiring and the coming end to enhanced unemployment benefits.

To apply for the RentReliefRI program, go to https://www.rihousing.com/rentreliefri/ or call the program's call center at 855-608-8756. The call center is open Monday through Friday: 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturday 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Application assistance is also available by calling Tri-County Community Action Agency's Washington County office at 401-583-0075.

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