An employee explaining rent details to a tenant before signing the contract. The employee holds a pen and there are keys and a model house on the table.
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[Related: Watch NPQ’s recent webinar, “Remaking The Economy: Tenant Organizing In Unexpected Places]

Amid a rising tide of tenant movements around the country, a Rhode Island nonprofit has helped lead the way toward tenant protection measures, including a proposed statewide ban on rental application fees that now appears close to taking effect. 

Reclaim Rhode Island, which helped organize a grassroots campaign for the ban, is a young organization, born out of organizing efforts around the 2020 campaign of then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. 

In the years since that campaign, the group has grown into a statewide progressive organizing force, taking on campaigns from progressive cannabis legalization to “tax the rich” policies to an increasing focus on organizing renters to advocate for tenant rights.

When a state representative introduced the proposed ban on tenant application fees, the group rallied to support the measure, which has since passed both houses of the state’s general assembly and is set to go into effect, barring an unlikely veto by the governor. 

Rhode Island would be only the third state in the United States to ban rental application fees, which opponents characterize as not only as unnecessary and burdensome, especially to low-income renters, but also predatory, extracting already-stretched resources from desperate would-be renters for profit.  

Reclaim Rhode Island was just one of several groups to support the legislation—but the group was influential in its passage, says sponsor State Representative Cherie Cruz; and its model of organizing speaks to a growing movement across the country that seeks not just to advocate for tenants but to organize tenants to advocate for themselves. 

Organizing Tenants against “Slumlord” Owners

Following Bernie Sanders’ unsuccessful bid for president, Rhode Island-based organizers for his campaign regrouped as Reclaim Rhode Island, focusing their efforts and energy on a variety of progressive causes, along the way making inroads among other progressive groups and within the state legislature. 

“We want to not only organize fellow self-identified socialists, leftists, or progressives—we want to organize the people of Rhode Island.”

But the group wanted to do more than advocate—they wanted to organize Rhode Island residents not already part of the political process, says Reclaim RI co-chair Daniel Denvir. 

“The huge pivot we’ve made was we want to not only organize fellow self-identified socialists, leftists, or progressives—we want to organize the people of Rhode Island,” says Denvir. “So what were we going to organize people around? And it was becoming very clear over the past few years that housing was the thing to organize people around.”

The group began organizing tenants of a notorious Rhode Island landlord—a “slumlord,” as they put it—named Pioneer Investments, whose tenants were experiencing a wide ride range of indignities and health hazards. 

“We’re talking about broken windows and doors, holes in the wall, and then in many cases, things like long lapses in heat during really cold months,” says Reclaim RI organizer Shana Crandell. “We’re talking about raw sewage coming up into people’s bathrooms, ceilings dropping, AC completely full of mold….So many tenants describe constantly being sick, their kids being sick.”

The group began recruiting tenant leaders into the organization, helping mobilize them to speak out publicly against their landlords and of their housing struggles. 

In June, Rhode Island’s attorney general announced a civil lawsuit against Pioneer Investments, accusing the landlord of failing to comply with a slew of state health and safety laws—a virtually unprecedented move, organizers say, and a major victory for the group. 

Thanks largely to that campaign, Reclaim RI was able to build a core of tenant organizers and advocates; and when the proposed ban on rental application fees was introduced, the campaign to support the ban was a natural move. 

“There’s a huge amount of just…collecting application fees when there’s no real intention to rent the apartment.”

While they might represent a mere inconvenience to some renters, the ubiquity and perniciousness of rental application fees can be hard to overstate for lower-income renters who must often contend with repeated rejection as they seek apartments—in many cases paying $50 per adult for every apartment they attempt to secure for their families, often to no avail, says organizer Shana Crandell. 

So it ends up…being that you just drain people’s pockets because they’re so unlikely to get a real shot,” especially if a would-be renter has an eviction on their record, Crandell says. “And yet there’s no other option.” 

The fees are not just unnecessary, Crandell says, they’re often predatory. With affordable housing being scarce, and local slumlords controlling much of that stock, landlords can use application fees to generate income from vacant or soon-to-be vacant apartments with no intention of renting to most of those who apply. 

The fees “motivate [landlords] to maintain vacancies. There’s a huge amount of just…collecting application fees when there’s no real intention to rent the apartment to the person.It’s frankly a racket,” says Crandell.

Power in Numbers 

When State Rep. Cruz—herself a member of Reclaim RI—introduced the proposed ban on rental application fees, among other tenant protections measures, the organization was well-positioned to fight for the legislation. 

“We outnumbered the landlords at every hearing.”

 “When these bills came up and we had already been building our base around the struggle for repairs, we were able to talk to tenants about what these bills were,” says organizer Crandell. “And organically people were eager to submit written testimony, even in some cases come to the State House and wait for hours, testify late at night. You know, we’re talking about people with small children a lot of the time.”

The rental application fee ban faced pointed opposition—primarily from landlords and real estate interests, who had successfully opposed similar measures in prior years. 

“This time,” recalls Crandell, “we outnumbered the landlords at every hearing.” 

And those efforts made a difference, says Cruz. “They were able to organize tenants who were impacted to bring those stories to our fellow legislators to see it’s not just coming from us as fellow legislators, but also here’s the real impact.”

For Reclaim RI co-chair Denvir, there’s a direct line between the group’s mobilization around slumlord abuses and the legislative success of the application fee ban. 

“Tenant organizing has exploded.”

“There were a bunch of intersecting factors, but for us as an organization the biggest thing has been this key shift to make the basis of everything we’re doing to organize poor and working-class tenants to lead their own struggle for housing justice,” says Denvir. “It was tenants speaking out that made it very clear that the status quo was just too inhumane to maintain.” 

As a tenant-led effort, such mobilization doesn’t come without a price. Crandell says several tenant members of Reclaim RI have reported being targeted by their own landlords for their activism: “Numerous tenants who are experiencing retaliation have independently described it as psychological warfare.” 

That kind of blowback can be extremely isolating, says Crandell; but Reclaim RI’s organizing efforts offer some countermeasure to that isolation by bringing together tenant organizers who might otherwise be fighting individual battles on their own:  “Often what we see is that people feel deeply alone in having to live with rats or having an eviction on their record, constantly falling behind. And when people come together and find camaraderie and solidarity with their neighbors, a lot of people really value it, enjoy it.”

“Some of our best leaders were already fighting on their own,” she continues. “And then once they see this opportunity to be more powerful, they take it.”

Meanwhile, Reclaim RI’s efforts can be seen as part of a larger and growing movement of tenant organizing throughout the country. 

Tenant organizing has exploded,” notes Crandell. “We’re not alone in taking on this work and part of why we’ve been able to be successful is that there’s this huge wave of [similar] movements and we’re having wins.” 

Looking back, Crandell is proud of their progress: When we were starting, we reached out to other tenant unions and were able to get help. And now we’re turning around and giving advice to newly forming tenant unions. So, it’s just a beautiful thing to see people taking back power over their living conditions.”