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POWR seeks housing justice for Tiara Graham’s family
"The power for too long has been shifted into the hands of landlords and property management companies at the expense of tenants, who have no rights."
POWR (Providence Organization of Workers and Renters) organized a speak-out outside the Rhode Island State House on Tuesday to call attention to Rhode Island’s housing crisis. Centered was Providence resident Tiara Graham, who is fighting her landlord, Terryl Desuze of Providence Apartments LLC, in "an ongoing effort to improve her and her son’s living conditions."
Graham said she has repeatedly requested that Desuze complete essential repairs on his property, including the removal of fungi growing through open floorboards, roof leakages from an upstairs rental unit, and cracked concrete and rusted handrails in apartment entrances. Desuze, says POWR, has ignored many of these requests. Further POWR maintains that when the landlord does respond, he schedules visits without timely notice and the work completed is of substandard quality.
"I’m here today because I’m speaking out about injustice," said Tiara Graham, surrounded by supporters and speaking to reporters. “Nine months ago my landlord… was cited for not having his lead certificate after I learned earlier in May 2022 that my child was poisoned by lead paint dust that accumulated in my apartment after an unprofessional repair job, where my family wasn’t relocated even though Desuze should have known our house at 9-11 Lawn Street was constructed pre-1978 and most certainly had lead paint.
"In March of this year my landlord received his second citation for lack of lead certificate and other violations for needed repairs and started being civilly fined $350 daily - but still wouldn’t do the needed work to bring my home up to code. This is why I joined POWR, the Providence Organization of Workers and Renters in April to demand Justice!
"First, we went to Terryl’s house in late April to deliver him a letter asking for the full repairs or his assistance to relocate my family to a safer apartment. He refused, and told me to evict myself. This is when we decide to expose him and the poor conditions my family lives in outside the new apartments his construction company is building on Broadway in Providence - to warn future tenants of what they might expect, and spread awareness.
"After I took these actions with my friends in POWR, my landlord spread lies about my character on social media, leading to an anonymous complaint to DCYF [Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families]. We believe this was from someone in the landlord class trying to shut me up, repress my right to free speech and retaliate for our tenant organizing.
"Now, even though Providence has found a full 20 violations in the building, I’ve had no recourse. Even though it was passed by the General Assembly last year, there is no functional revolving fund to pay rent into when homes are unfit. There hasn’t been a court escrow beyond emergency matters like a lack of utilities or your house needs to be condemned. Representative David Morales’ bill to establish a process for court escrow when there is landlord non-compliance with lead hazard mitigation (2023-S 0729aa, 2023-H 6238A) has, as far as we know, yet to be signed into law by Governor Daniel McKee. We need the Governor to sign and pass all the bills in the Attorney General’s package to help hold slumlords accountable and protect families like mine from eviction when there is no compliance with our lead and minimum housing laws.”
Graham has also demanded that Desuze recognize his own “negligence and fault” for her son’s lead poisoning, which occurred after attempted repair job allegedly released lead paint dust and chips in Graham’s apartment, which was not cleaned and disposed of appropriately.
"Mr. Desuze has repeatedly ignored City of Providence code enforcement violation notices, to the point that his case can now be reviewed for charges in the city’s housing court," said POWR in a statement. "Even though repeated violations of city housing code result in daily civil fines for the owner, the city lacks a robust enforcement mechanism to collect those fines. This allows landlords to avoid performing essential maintenance and repairs on their property, no matter the effect on tenants’ quality of life."
POWR is working with the Rhode Island Center for Justice, who have spoken at length with Tiara Graham, visited her residence, and will seek documentation from the code enforcement office for further review. Graham also has sought support from the Childhood Lead Action Project.
"Unfortunately what we have heard from Tiara is not a unique experience," said Representative David Morales (Democrat, District 7, Providence). "All too often we are hearing stories of families that are forced to live in deplorable conditions because their landlord... refuses to make repairs even if it is in violation of the law. The power for too long has been shifted into the hands of landlords and property management companies at the expense of tenants, who have no rights."
"Safe housing should be available to every Rhode Islander," said POWR organizer Olivia in a statement. "Tenants should not have to navigate time-consuming administrative and legal hurdles just to secure the bare minimum – a well-built, well-maintained residence where they can rest and care for themselves and their families. Landlords lobby against tenant advocacy by arguing that this advocacy imposes undue regulation and financial costs upon them. Landlords generate passive income by charging tenants for one of the most basic human needs, yet are not held to account for the quality or [even the] bare minimum safety standards of their properties.
"No renter should have to pay to live in a home where they face multiple health and safety hazards. Yet, because of a severe lack of affordable housing options in Rhode Island and market-rate rents that have sky-rocketed during the pandemic, many renters must choose between fighting it out with a negligent landlord or facing homelessness as they wait on multi-year waitlists for an affordable housing opportunity."
Tiara Graham is currently facing an eviction hearing scheduled for June 22nd. "No one should be evicted from an apartment that has been cited by the city for having unsafe levels of lead.," said POWR in a statement. "No one should be evicted from an apartment with the slew of code violations that are still present in Ms. Graham’s apartment, months after the city found the violations.
"In Providence, as in many places, the city will cite a landlord for failing to meet basic safety conditions, who then turns around a few months later and evicts the tenant who raised the concerns. This is what Desuze is trying to do with Ms. Graham. The situation Ms. Graham faces is one that many Rhode Islanders will face in the coming years should we fail to build community power and ensure basic protections for renters in this state. While we work toward a world in which public housing is built, owned, and managed by and for our communities, we must create consequences for negligent landlords like Desuze. Thus, we call on the Rhode Island General Assembly and Governor Daniel McKee to make sure to pass all tenant protections before them this legislative session and ensure safe, healthy, public housing for all!"
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