With tenants facing deplorable conditions, AG's office sues Pioneer Investments and its landlord

Tenants of Pioneer Investments who have long faced neglect and unlivable conditions now have the state’s most powerful advocate on their side: Attorney General Peter Neronha.

Melissa Grussi shares her experience in a Pioneer-managed apartment

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On Tuesday morning, Neronha and state Department of Health Interim Director Utpala Bandy filed a complaint in Superior Court against Pioneer and its landlord, Anurag Sureka.

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Neronha’s office alleges that Pioneer and Sureka “own and operate more than 175 residential rental units across Rhode Island, and routinely ignore lead hazard laws, landlord-tenant laws, housing code regulations, and regularly engage in unfair and deceptive trade practices throughout the state.”

More: Tenants band together against RI landlord as they face deplorable conditions

“Today’s action signals that enough is enough when it comes to the alleged misconduct of a major landlord who is placing the health and safety of Rhode Islanders at risk,” Neronha said. “Let’s cut right to it – as alleged, profits are being placed over basic human dignity, and that cannot stand.”

Samuel Grossack, a lawyer who represents Pioneer, said the company is aware the complaint was filed.

“Pioneer has yet to be served with the complaint but is aware of the press release and what has been said so far,” Grossack said. “Pioneer disagrees with much of the information it has seen reported. Pioneer is anticipating reviewing the complaint in full and will respond accordingly.”

Tenants fought tooth and nail. Then they went to the AG

Reclaim RI, a progressive group that champions tenant complaints, organized renters last year, periodically holding rallies and news conferences condemning Pioneer and Sureka. At one point, tenants even marched to the front door of Sureka’s brick mansion in East Walpole, Massachusetts, to demand better conditions.

“Roughly two dozen Pioneer tenants bravely came forward to tell their stories to the AG,” said Reclaim tenant organizer Shana Crandell. “Pioneer tenants also told their stories at rallies and State House hearings, bringing unprecedented awareness to the fact that slumlord abuse is a critical part of this state’s dire housing crisis.”

© Kris Craig, The Providence Journal
Shana Crandell, a tenant organizer for Reclaim RI, talks about the AG’s office suing Pioneer Investments as tenants rallied at the RI State House on Tuesday.

More: Pioneer tenants organized against their landlord. Now they say they’re being pushed out

Complaints ranged from vermin to leaks and structural issues. In one case, two small children were lead-poisoned in one of Pioneer’s Central Falls apartments. Their parents learned of their diagnoses by the time the children turned 2 years old, and will probably not know the extent of any damage until they turn 7 and can be tested by a neuropsychologist.

Christian Velazquez, the children’s father, showed up at a State House rally hours after Neronha announced his lawsuit.

“I want Anurag Sureka to hear that we are here and we’re fighting,” he said. “And we’re not going to stop.”

More: A Central Falls couple’s twins were struggling. Then a blood test showed high lead levels

The state wants Pioneer to get its units into compliance, pay fines, give relief to tenants and hire an independent monitor to ensure the company follows the law.

AG’s action part of ongoing campaign against bad landlords

In an interview with The Providence Journal shortly after filing his complaint, Neronha said his action against Pioneer was part of a commitment his office made in fall 2021 to become more aggressive against those putting renters at risk.

Neronha said at that time that he wanted his civil division to “think as much about getting out on offense for Rhode Islanders … as much as we thought about defending the state when it got sued.”

Rhode Island already has many laws and housing codes designed to protect renters, but enforcement, which begins at the local level, can be tricky. In cases of lead poisoning, for example, the Department of Health doesn’t have the ability to launch a suit on its own against landlords breaking the law. Instead, cases that are prosecuted must be kicked up to Neronha’s office, which has just 100 lawyers.

“I wish our ability to bring these cases was bigger than it is,” Neronha said. “It’s why I’ve fought so hard for additional staffing. Our office is just chronically understaffed.”

© Kris Craig, The Providence Journal
Melissa Grussi, a tenant at a Pioneer Investments property, describes her constant issues with her landlord during a tenants’ rally Tuesday at the State House.

Neronha sees progress in the latest state budget proposal, but said he still feels his office bears a “tremendous burden” as the litigator for the state. He understands there are more companies just like Pioneer – he’s had no trouble finding cases – but going after each of them is probably impossible.

“My hope is that taking strong action in one particular instance, and the other cases that we’ve brought, other landlords will know that we’re coming for them if they don’t clean up their act,” Neronha said. “Hopefully it will drive change even where we haven’t brought an action against them.”

Melissa Grussi, a Pioneer tenant who was at Monday’s rally, called Neronha’s move “historic” but wasn’t sure what would play out next.

“If there’s one, there’s many,” Grussi said of neglectful landlords. “It’s a problem across all of Rhode Island,” she said. “It’s not just him.”

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: With tenants facing deplorable conditions, AG’s office sues Pioneer Investments and its landlord

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