Eviction in the 21st century is a legal process in every state. The days of tossing a tenant's belongings on the street and changing the locks are a thing of the past. Like other states, Rhode Island requires landlords to follow explicit rules to end a tenancy, including filing a law suit if the tenant refuses to leave the rental property.
It is possible for a landlord in Rhode Island to evict a tenant whether or not the parties have signed a lease, but it's easier to evict a tenant without a lease. Rhode Island laws about tenancies, including eviction procedures, are set out in the Rhode Island "Residential Landlord and Tenant Act," found at Title 34, Chapter 18 of the state codes.
The federal government generally leaves the residential landlord/tenant relationship to the states. However, federal laws do prohibit housing discrimination based on protected categories such as gender, race, age and ethnic background.
In Rhode Island, the Residential Landlord and Tenant Act is the primary law regulating the landlord/tenant relationship. Note that residential tenants are individuals or families that rent an apartment or a house to be used as a dwelling unit.
These can be contrasted with commercial tenants who rent space for business operations. Commercial tenancies are subject to different rules in most states, including Rhode Island.
Lease Tenancies in Rhode Island
What is a lease? Under Rhode Island law, a lease is a written agreement between a tenant and a landlord for a set period of time. Under a lease, the tenant agrees to stay in the premises for a given period, usually one or two years and the landlord agrees to let them stay for that period without raising the monthly lease payment.
A lease contract also sets out the terms of the tenancy. There can be rules about behavior while in the premises, including smoking restrictions, noise restrictions and pet restrictions.
A lease gives both the tenant and the landlord a sense of stability since both parties are set for the lease term, the tenant with a place to live, and the landlord with a renter.
Advantages and Disadvantages of a Lease
The Rhode Island Landlord Tenant Handbook reiterates these advantages of a lease:
- Security of a long-term arrangement
- A specific rental amount
- A clear understanding of responsibilities
- Lack of rent increase (except as allowed for under specific written conditions)
- No eviction without violating the agreement
- Terms agreed to must be honored until the lease expires even if the property changes ownership
- More secure income for landlord during the lease period (and can write down specific rules to avoid later confusion or misunderstanding)
Leaving a Property Before the End of the Lease
The problems with a lease arise if one of the parties wishes to terminate the lease before it is up. Generally a tenant is liable for the entire lease term.
If they leave early, they may be on the hook for all of the payments for the remaining lease term. And if a landlord finds another tenant they like better, they cannot ask the tenant to leave for the duration of the lease term unless they have violated the terms of the lease.
Periodic Tenancies in Rhode Island
In Rhode Island, residential tenants do not necessarily have to sign a lease. The law provides for periodic tenancies in two cases: where there is no written agreement and where there is a written agreement but it does not contain a time frame for the tenancy.
If there is no specified term for the tenancy in Rhode Island, it becomes a periodic tenancy, running from week to week or month to month. Rent is paid in advance for the period. If rent payments are due every week, the tenancy is a week-to-week rental agreement; if rent payments are made monthly, the tenancy is a month-to-month.
Advantages and Disadvantages of a Periodic Tenancy
A tenant in a periodic tenancy does not agree to stay in the unit for any period beyond the period they pay for. That is, in a month-to-month tenancy, payment is usually made on the first day of the month and covers rent for that month.
The tenant or the landlord can end the tenancy at any time by providing 30 days' notice, which works well for a short-term tenant. For example, a renter may give notice on January 31 that they intend to vacate on March 1.
On the other hand, a periodic tenancy in Rhode Island does not offer any protection against rent increases. A landlord can increase the rent in a periodic tenancy as long as they give the tenant written notice 30 days or more prior to the effective date of the rent increase.
This applies to both week-to-week and month-to-month tenancies. This 30-day notice is a legal minimum for rent increases, but a longer notice period can be specified in a rental agreement or simply applied by a landlord.
No-fault Eviction: Terminating a Tenancy
A Rhode Island landlord cannot terminate a lease agreement unless the tenant has broken an important term of the agreement. They can refuse to renew a lease by giving notice 30 days before the end of the lease.
For example, if a tenant signs a two-year lease on January 1, 2020, the landlord cannot terminate the tenancy without cause until January 1, 2022. The landlord would send notice on or before December 1, 2022, giving the tenant notice that they must move out at the end of the lease.
Evicting a Tenant Without a Lease
However, Rhode Island allows a landlord to kick out a tenant who does not have a lease agreement at any time. The landlord has the right to terminate a periodic tenancy for almost any reason by simply giving the tenant 30 days' notice.
In Rhode Island, this eviction notice is termed a Notice to Quit. If the tenant leaves as requested, there is no need for an eviction proceeding. If they do not, the landlord must take further action.
Fault-eviction Laws in Rhode Island
In a Rhode Island tenancy that involves a lease agreement, the landlord cannot evict a tenant without good cause. But they can terminate the tenancy if the tenant has breached the terms of the lease. This is usually due to nonpayment of rent, but it could also be some other lease violation like keeping a pet in a no-pet unit or smoking in a no-smoking unit.
Note that tenants in periodic tenancies can also be evicted for faults like nonpayment of rent or breaking the lease terms. But since the tenancy can be ended with 30 days' notice, the landlord may not opt for a fault eviction that can lead to trial and delays.
Eviction Process for Rent Payment
The most common reason for eviction in Rhode Island is failure to pay rent. The eviction procedure is governed by Rhode Island Code Section 34-18-35. The landlord must wait until some part of the rent is 15 days in arrears. Until that point, the landlord cannot take any further action against the tenant.
Once rent is 15 days late, the landlord can send a written notice to the tenant that must specify the amount of overdue rent and make a demand for payment. It must also tell the tenant that unless they pay up within five days of the date of the notice the rental agreement will terminate, and the landlord will file an eviction action.
Filing a Court Action
If the tenant doesn't pay, the landlord can file the eviction action against the tenant in District Court on the sixth day after the date of the notice. This is called a Complaint for Eviction for Nonpayment of Rent.
The court then sets a date for the hearing and prepares a summons that sets out the date of the hearing. This hearing is to allow both the landlord and the tenant to state their cases before the court.
The summons also tells the tenant that they can file an answer before or at the time of the hearing and that a default judgment will be entered against them if they don't answer or don't show up. Both the complaint and the summons must be properly served on the tenant.
Setting Down a Court Hearing
If the tenant files an Answer to the Complaint, the court will hold a hearing at which both sides can argue their cases. After the parties state their cases, the presiding judge will rule. If the landlord wins, the court gives them the right to possession of the unit.
Eviction Process for Other Tenancy Violation
A tenant can also be evicted for violating the tenancy agreement if the violation is "significant," that is, something that affects human health and safety. The eviction proceeds in much the same manner as an eviction for failure to pay rent.
The landlord must send the tenant a 20-day written notice to terminate the tenancy rather than a five-day written notice. Similarly, if a tenant fails to perform their duties, the written notice is also 20-days to terminate the tenancy.
It must state the nature of the tenant's violation or failure in duty. The tenant has 20 days to correct the issue and continue the tenancy unless they had similar violations within the past six months.
Tenant Failure to Correct Issues
If the tenant fails to correct the issues, or if they cannot do so since they had similar violations in the past, the court will hear and decide the issues raised. Each party can make their case, and the court will determine whether the tenant will be evicted.
Appealing a Court Order
A tenant who loses the lease-violation eviction hearing in Rhode Island can appeal the decision if they believe they have good grounds. Again, they have a limited amount of time to file the appeal.
Actual Eviction Procedure
Under Rhode Island state law, if a landlord wins an eviction case, the eviction can take place six days after the court judgment is entered. While it is possible for a tenant to file an appeal within five days of the District Court hearing, the tenant must pay the rent in full and on time before the appeal.
If there is no appeal, the eviction can proceed. Even at this stage, the actual eviction – that is, the forcible removal of the tenants and their property from the rental unit – is not a private legal matter and a landlord cannot handle it themselves. No self-help is permitted to get the tenant out.
In Rhode Island, only a law enforcement officer can evict tenants and do so only after the landlord has won the eviction case in court, and the time for appeal of the eviction action has passed. At that time, the sheriff assists in removing the tenant. Rhode Island law does not require advance notice by the sheriff before the eviction takes place.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.