Legislative News – Feb. 11th: Discrimination against housing assistance, health insurance premiums

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02/11/2020Sen. Harold Metts;Senate approves bill to prohibit discrimination against housing assistance recipients
02/11/2020Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski;Senate passes Sosnowski bill that would ban gender discrimination in health insurance premiums
02/11/2020Sen. Frank Lombardi;Senate passes Lombardi legislation to tow cars illegally parked in handicapped parking spaces
02/11/2020Rep. Joseph McNamara;House OKs McNamara bill that would allow school districts to raise funds for field trips, dances, activities
02/11/2020Rep. Patricia Serpa;House passes Serpa bill that would compensate those who have been wrongfully imprisoned

Senate approves bill to prohibit discrimination against housing assistance recipients

STATE HOUSE — The Senate today approved legislation sponsored by Sen. Harold M. Metts to prohibit housing discrimination against those who receive government assistance to pay their rent.

The legislation (2020-S 2134) adds “lawful source of income” to the list of statuses — such as race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression and marital status —  that landlords may not use as a basis for their decisions about to whom they will rent, or which units they will rent to them. The bill would not apply to owner-occupied dwellings of three units or less.

The bill defines “lawful sources of income” as income or other assistance derived from Social Security; Supplemental Security Income; any other federal, state or local general public assistance, including medical or veterans assistance; any federal, state or local housing assistance, including Section 8 Housing; child support or alimony.

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The bill is meant to address the challenges and discrimination that many housing assistance recipients face finding an apartment in Rhode Island. Here, unlike in Massachusetts, Connecticut and 12 other states plus Washington, D.C., landlords are allowed to refuse to rent to those receiving housing assistance. Some advertise “No Section 8,” and advocates say that stipulation is sometimes used as a pretext for discrimination against not only the poor, but also families with children, minorities and others.

“We must make discrimination-free housing a civil right. Rhode Island should not be divided into haves and have-nots, with certain families stigmatized just because of the type of assistance they receive. That dynamic weakens and segregates our communities,” said Senator Metts (D-Dist. 6, Providence). “Needing housing assistance is not an indication that anyone is going to be a bad tenant. The vast majority of those receiving this assistance are families with children, often single mothers who are simply facing an uphill battle to afford the high cost of living in Rhode Island. There’s nothing wrong or shameful about that. Refusing to rent to them is just discrimination, and we should not sanction it as a state.”

In addition to protecting tenants from being refused housing based on their income, the bill protects them from other unlawful housing practices, including segregation.

The bill includes language that would still allow landlords to ask whether a prospective tenants is at least 18 years old, and allow them to check a prospective tenant’s income, its source and its expected duration only for the purpose of confirming the renter’s ability to pay rent.

The legislation, which has passed the Senate each year since 2017, now goes to the House, where Rep. Anastasia P. Williams (D-Dist. 9, Providence) plans to introduce a companion bill.

Cosponsors in the Senate include Sen. Frank A. Ciccone II (D-Dist. 7, Providence, North Providence), Sen. Ana B. Quezada (D-Dist. 2, Providence), Sen. Louis P. DiPalma (D-Dist. 12, Middletown, Tiverton, Little Compton, Newport) and Sen. Donna M. Nesselbush (D-Dist. 15, Pawtucket, North Providence).

A study released last year by Southcoast Fair Housing found that although Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) recipients can afford more than one-third of listed apartments in Rhode Island, they are ultimately rejected from 93 percent. Over 9,300 households in Rhode Island rely on HCV to afford housing.

Senate passes Sosnowski bill that would ban gender discrimination in health insurance premiums

STATE HOUSE — The Senate today passed legislation introduced by Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski (D-Dist. 37, South Kingstown, New Shoreham) that would ban health insurers from utilizing the discriminatory practice known as gender rating, or routinely charging women and men different premiums for individual insurance.

 “Women face unconscionable disparities when buying health insurance in the individual market,” Senator Sosnowski (D-Dist. 37, South Kingstown, New Shoreham) said. “Women sometimes are charged 10 percent to 25 percent to 50 percent more than men for insurance providing identical coverage, especially during the age bracket associated with child-bearing years.”

This legislation (2020-S 2125) would prohibit insurance companies from varying the premium rates charged for a health coverage plan based on the gender of the individual policy holder, enrollee, subscriber, or member. 

When it comes to health insurance, women are considered a higher risk than men because they tend to visit the doctor more frequently, live longer, and have babies. The practice is similar to car insurance companies charging a higher premium to insure teenage drivers.

Research from a 2012 National Women’s Law Center report entitled, “Turning to Fairness: Insurance Discrimination Against Women Today and the Affordable Care Act,” states that 92 percent of best-selling plans charge women more for health insurance coverage than men in states without laws banning gender rating. Only 3 percent of these plans cover maternity services. It also states that the practice of gender rating costs women approximately $1 billion per year, based on an average of 2012 advertised premiums and the most recent data on the number of women in the individual health insurance market. Excluding maternity coverage, the report further says that nearly one-third of plans examined charge 25- to 40-year-old women at least 30 percent more than men for the same coverage. In some cases, the difference is even greater.

The National Women’s Law Center is a research and advocacy group, which works to expand, protect and promote opportunity and advancement for women and girls. 

The measure now heads to the House of Representatives, where similar legislation (2020-H 7440) has been introduced by Rep. Katherine S. Kazarian (D-Dist. 63, East Providence).

Senate passes Lombardi legislation to tow cars illegally parked in handicapped parking spaces

STATE HOUSE — The Senate today passed legislation introduced by Sen. Frank S. Lombardi (D-Dist. 26, Cranston) that would mandate the towing of cars that are illegally parked in handicapped parking spaces.

The bill (2020-S 2090) specifies that any vehicle parked illegally in a properly marked handicapped space would be towed at the owner’s expense.

“Parking illegally in a handicapped space is one of the most unconscionable of petty crimes,” said Senator Lombardi. “Most of us have witnessed this happening at one time or another. It’s infuriating and frustrating. This legislation would direct law enforcement to have the vehicle towed in addition to citing the vehicle’s owner with a fine.”

The bill would amend the existing law, which calls for a $100 fine for a first violation, a $175 fine for a second violation, and a $325 fine for a third or subsequent violation.

It also specifies that the parking spaces must be properly marked with a blue-and-white international symbol of access sign with the words “Handicapped Parking,” “Disability Parking,” “Disabled Parking,” or “Reserved Parking.”

The measure now heads to the House of Representatives for consideration.

House OKs McNamara bill that would allow school districts to raise funds for field trips, dances, activities

STATE HOUSE — The House of Representatives today passed legislation introduced by Rep. Joseph M. McNamara (D-Dist. 19, Warwick, Cranston) that would allow school districts to raise the money necessary to fund certain extracurricular activities, including field trips and dances.

The legislation (2020-H 7069A) would allow a school district to request a contribution of money from a student or the student’s parent or legal guardian to pay, in whole or in part, for the cost of district sponsored field trips, dances, clubs, and other district sponsored or based programs of extracurricular activities, provided that the district would pay the costs to meet any deficit.

“Field trips are an important part of learning, enriching the curriculum, strengthening observation skills by immersing children into sensory activities,” said Representative McNamara, a former educator who chairs the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee. “The current policy of the Department of Education regarding the way these activities can be funded has caused many school districts to do away with field trips entirely. That’s just unacceptable, because they are vital in increasing a child’s knowledge of specific subjects, even generating the interest, enthusiasm and passion for subjects that will remain with them for the rest of their lives.”

Last year, many school districts canceled field trips in the wake of a Rhode Island Department of Education policy that was established in April by the former commissioner, Dr. Ken Wagner. The policy stated that school departments may not charge students to participate in public school field trips. Since it was interpreted that no fund raising could be done for these trips either, the policy effectively eliminated the field trips in many places.

The legislation proposed by Representative McNamara with the support of House leadership would codify the ability of school districts to request money, establish a minimum goal for fundraising and to receive contributions or gifts of money as a prerequisite to determining whether the district would participate in the activity.

The measure now moves to the Senate, where similar legislation (2020-S 2327) has been introduced by Sen. Hanna M. Gallo (D-Dist. 27, Cranston, West Warwick).

House passes Serpa bill that would compensate those who have been wrongfully imprisoned

STATE HOUSE — The House of Representatives today passed legislation introduced by Rep. Patricia Serpa (D-Dist. 27, West Warwick, Coventry, Warwick) that would give compensation to innocent people who have spent time behind bars but later released when new evidence shows they were not guilty.

“When an innocent person is put in prison, they not only lose their freedom but their future, their plans, everything they might have been,” said Representative Serpa. “Once they are proven innocent, the task of re-entering society can be even more difficult than it is for those who rightfully paid for their crimes. Unlike those who are paroled, who have many services at their disposal, the innocent have nothing. They are left with no housing, no income, and no health care.”

Rhode Island in one of 17 states that does not compensate the wrongfully imprisoned. That would change with the legislation (2020-H 7086) Rep. Serpa has sponsored. The law would authorize any person who has been wrongfully sentenced to a term of imprisonment greater than one year to petition the presiding justice of Rhode Island Superior Court for an award of compensation and damages, including attorney’s fees.

“We as a society owe it to the wrongfully incarcerated to make up for the mistake we made in imprisoning them in the first place,” said Representative Serpa, who was contacted by a former Warwick police officer who spent six years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. “We failed them when we slammed the cell door. This legislation will give us the opportunity to provide prompt and compassionate assistance to help make up for that mistake.”

Under the legislation, if the court found that the claimant was wrongfully incarcerated, it would grant an award of $50,000 for each year served in a correctional facility. For incarceration of less than a year, the amount would be prorated to 1/365 of $50,000 for every day served.

The award may be expanded to include compensation for any reasonable costs including housing, transportation, subsistence, re-integrative services, and mental and physical health care costs, along with reasonable attorney’s fees not to exceed $15,000.

“This is not only the right thing to do, but it’s an important step we need to take to ensure the integrity of our criminal justice system,” said Representative Serpa.

The measure now moves to the Senate for consideration.