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Eviction Laws and Tenant Rights in Rhode Island

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In a Nutshell

Landlords in Rhode Island can’t just change the locks, toss your belongings out on the front yard, or shut down essential utilities. A landlord must follow the eviction process in order to have a tenant evicted for any reason. Here's an overview of what this means for tenants in Rhode Island.

Written by Upsolve Team
Updated January 12, 2022

If you’re unable to pay your rent because of a job loss or other problem, you may be facing eviction from your home. This article will explain the basics of Rhode Island’s eviction laws and tenants’ and renters’ rights in the state. You might find this article useful if you’re a renter in Rhode Island and your landlord is threatening eviction, if you’re behind on rent, or if your lease is about to expire. 

What Is Eviction?

Eviction is a legal process that a landlord uses to remove a tenant (renter) from their home. Sometimes a tenant will leave a property before the eviction process starts, during the process, or after it’s complete. 

Generally speaking, a landlord must have a court order to remove a tenant that hasn’t paid rent. Your landlord can’t remove you from their property without going through the courts. If they try to remove you without a court order, it’s called an illegal eviction or illegal lockout.

Rhode Island has different types of eviction. We’ll explain what these are in the sections below.

Who Can Be Evicted in Rhode Island?

If you're considered a tenant, you can be evicted. For a landlord to legally evict someone, a landlord-tenant relationship must exist. A tenant is someone who’s made an agreement with the landlord to rent their housing. People living with the tenant (even if they’re not listed as a tenant in the lease agreement) can also be evicted.

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Why Can Someone Be Evicted in Rhode Island?

A landlord can evict a tenant in Rhode Island if:

  • They're short, late, or behind on rent

  • They’re in breach of a lease agreement term other than the requirement to pay rent. 

  • The lease has expired. 

Eviction procedures are different for each situation. In the sections below, we’ll discuss the eviction procedures for each type of eviction.

Late, Short, or Behind on Rent?

If a tenant is short, late, or behind on their rent, a landlord can evict them. Under Rhode Island law, if the tenant pays rent even a day after its due, it’s considered late. But the rent has to be at least 15 days late before a landlord can send a tenant what’s called a Notice to Pay. When the tenant is 15 days behind on rent, the landlord must give tenants a 5-day notice telling them they plan to file an eviction in court. If the tenant pays in five days, they can avoid eviction. 

But if the tenant hasn’t paid the past-due rent by the end of the notice period and they stay in the property, the landlord can move forward with the eviction process by filing a Complaint for Eviction of Nonpayment of Rent in court.

Lease Expiration or Termination

In Rhode Island, a landlord can evict a tenant after the lease expires. In some cases, they can also terminate the lease early and evict the tenant. With expiration and termination, the landlord is saying that the tenant no longer has the right to live in the property, no matter whether the tenant pays rent. 

Lease Expiration 

Sometimes a landlord doesn’t want to renew a lease when it expires. When this happens, most tenants leave voluntarily. If tenants “hold over,” or stay in the rental unit after the lease ends, Rhode Island landlords must give written notice before they can file an eviction case. This written notice is called a Notice to Quit. It tells a tenant to either pay the past-due rent to the landlord or leave the rental property to avoid being evicted.

The amount of time required in the notice depends on the length of the lease:

  • For week-to-week leases, a landlord must give the tenant a 10-day Notice to Quit. 

  • For month-to-month leases, a landlord must give the tenant a 30-day Notice to Quit.

  • For year-to-year leases, the landlord must give the tenant a 90-day Notice to Quit. 

After the landlord gives the proper notice, if the tenant doesn’t leave the rental unit by the time the notice expires, the landlord can start the eviction process.

Lease termination 

A landlord can terminate a lease early and evict a tenant in Rhode Island if the tenant violates the terms of the lease agreement. Some typical lease violations triggering lease terminations are:

  • Damaging the rental unit.

  • Subletting the property with telling the landlord. 

  • Allowing unauthorized people to live in the unit.

  • Violating a pet policy.

If a tenant violates these terms of a lease agreement, Rhode Island landlords must send tenants a written 20-day Notice to Comply. This means the landlord gives the tenant 20 days to comply with the terms of the lease provision they’ve broken. If they don’t comply during this period, the landlord can evict them. 

A landlord can also terminate a lease and evict a tenant from a rental unit if there’s any illegal activity going on in the property. In these cases, the landlord doesn’t have to give a tenant written notice. They can go straight to the eviction process. 

The Rhode Island Eviction Process

After following any notices required by law to remove tenants, Rhode Island landlords can start the eviction process in court.

What happens once the eviction is filed with the court?

To begin the eviction process, a landlord has to file a complaint in district court or the housing court where the property is located. The court will then issue a summons.

If you’re being evicted for nonpayment of rent, your landlord must serve the summons and complaint to you at least five days before the scheduled eviction hearing. For every other type of eviction, the summons and complaint have to be served on the tenant before the hearing. State law doesn’t give a time limit on how quickly the summons and complaint must be served on the tenant.

No matter the cause for eviction, the summons and complaint have to be served on the tenant by the sheriff or someone authorized by law such as a private process server. You’re considered served if:

  • An authorized server personally gives you a copy of the summons and complaint.

  • An authorized server leaves a copy of the summons and complaint with someone of suitable age at the unit. If a suitable person can’t be found at the rental, the server may post a copy in an obvious place on the rental unit.

  • You’ve been mailed a copy of the summons and complaint via first-class mail.

Also, the landlord or the landlord’s attorney must mail a copy of the summons and complaint to the tenant. The summons tells the tenant the summon date, which is the time and place of the first court date. The court will set this nine days from the date the eviction is filed.  

Generally, for evictions due to nonpayment of rent, after receiving the court summons, tenants need to file a written answer responding to the complaint any time before or at the hearing date on the summons. For all other kinds of evictions, the tenant must file an answer no later than 20 days after receiving the complaint and summons. 

How quickly will I get a court date?

Rhode Island law doesn’t require eviction hearings to be held within a certain time. Your hearing will be scheduled by the court on its own schedule. 

Do I have to go to an eviction court hearing?

If you don’t come to the eviction hearing, you risk a default judgment. In other words, the judge won’t hear your side and you’ll lose the eviction case. This means the landlord will get a judgment against you and you’ll have to move out. Afterward, the court will issue a writ of execution, and the eviction process continues.

Telling Your Side of the Story: Affirmative Defenses and Counterclaims

You may have defenses to the eviction that can stop the eviction. If appropriate, you may also have a reason to file a counterclaim against your landlord. This can help you delay the eviction. 

With an affirmative defense, you admit that the landlord’s claims are true, but give a justification for why they happened. For example, if you didn’t pay your rent because you used the money to make a repair the landlord said they’d make but didn’t, you may be able to raise this as an affirmative defense in an eviction case for nonpayment of rent. 

A counterclaim is when you file your own lawsuit against the landlord when you receive eviction court papers. Most counterclaims allege the landlord violated a term of the lease or violated state or federal law.

Does Rhode Island allow affirmative defenses and counterclaims? 

Yes, Rhode Island allows affirmative defenses and counterclaims in eviction lawsuits. You need to raise these in your written answer to the lawsuit. You can’t simply raise them at the hearing. If you don’t raise them in writing, the court assumes you’ve waived your right to them.

Common affirmative defenses are:

  • The landlord didn’t make necessary repairs.

  • The landlord didn’t provide proper notice of the eviction.

  • The landlord cut off essential utilities like heat, water, or electricity.

  • The tenant has notified the landlord about a building or housing code violation that affects the tenant’s health, but the landlord refuses to fix the violation. 

  • The landlord has filed the eviction to punish a tenant who filed a complaint against the landlord with a governmental agency. 

  • The landlord filed the eviction lawsuit in retaliation for the tenant joining a tenant’s union or similar tenant rights organization within the last six months.

A tenant can bring a counterclaim for similar reasons to bringing affirmative defenses into a lawsuit. For example, a tenant can file a counterclaim against the landlord if they breach the lease contract or breach the implied warranty of habitability. This means they failed to keep the property in a livable condition.

What Happens After an Eviction Trial?

The court may enter a judgment on the trial date or at a later time. If the court finds in the landlord’s favor, you can appeal. If you do, the court will give you a new trial. If you want to appeal an eviction, it’s a complicated process. It’s a good idea to get legal advice from an experienced eviction lawyer.

If the court issues a judgment in the landlord’s favor, it will issue a writ of execution within six days of entering the judgment. The writ of execution will be served (provided) to the tenant by a sheriff or other judicial officer. This is your final notice to move out of the rental unit. If you receive a writ of execution, it’s best to move out of the residence and take your personal belongings. If you don’t, a law enforcement officer will arrive at the rental unit to forcibly remove you.

Practical Tips for Tenants Facing Eviction in Rhode Island

Here are some useful tips for tenants facing eviction in Rhode Island.

  • Gather all documents, photos, videos, and any other evidence that can support any claims you want to make about the property’s condition.

  • It’s a good idea to have a municipal building inspector visit the property and issue a report about any issues with the property’s condition.

  • If you can't appear for a scheduled eviction court date you should contact the court clerk. Ask the clerk for a continuance or to inform the judge that you won’t be attending. If you don’t do this, you'll risk a default judgment.

  • If you cure your past-due rent by catching up on your rent at some point during the eviction process, be careful about when and how you pay the rent. You need to pay before the notice period on the landlord’s notice or court summons ends. You also need to find out if you need to make your rent payment to the court or to the landlord. Finally, keep a record to prove you paid the back rent.

  • It’s important to communicate. Reach out to your landlord if you can’t pay your rent on time. Be proactive and ask if you can set up a payment agreement. 

  • Avoid eviction if you can. The mere filing of an eviction can follow your rental history for years and limit your future housing opportunities.

  • Remember you can negotiate. If an eviction has been brought to court, think about ways you can negotiate with your landlord or their attorney. Sometimes landlords will drop an eviction case if you agree to move out by a certain time and promise to pay back rent. 

  • Get agreements in writing. Make sure that any agreement you make with your landlord to pay back rent is in writing and is signed by both you and your landlord.

Tenant Resources in Rhode Island

Many nonprofits and government organizations offer free eviction resources to tenants. The following organizations may be able to help tenants to pay back rent and locate housing:

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are additional federal and local programs to help tenants in Rhode Island. 

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