(Note: Over the next few weeks, WhatsUpNewp will explore affordable housing issues. We’ll define the problem, speak with leading politicians and housing officials, listen to the homeless, and explore successful programs elsewhere.)

The headline reads: “It’s the New Form of Affordable Housing … more people are living in their cars.”

Or, as Russ Partridge at Westerly’s Warm Center suggests, it’s campgrounds during the summer, and panic as summer ends and families scramble for more permanent homes, as the school year approaches.

The lack of affordable housing is a critical problem in Rhode Island, according to those working at agencies that provide services to some of the state’s most at-risk residents. A 2016 study by Housing Works for Rhode Island Housing said the state would need to add more than 30,000 housing units over the next nine years to meet projected needs.

The lack of affordable housing, including rents that have spiked recently, means that some of the state’s poor are paying as much as 60 percent of their income on housing, according to Kids Count, often cutting back on other essentials, such as food or medications.

Housing Works defines affordable housing as living in housing in which you pay no more than 30 percent of your gross income on rent or mortgage payments, which meets the percentage federal guideline for “affordability.”

Rhode Island’s poor and elderly are literally being left out in the cold as 34 of 39 of the state’s cities and towns have failed to reach the mandated threshold of 10 percent affordable housing, a mandate that was established 27 years ago. Only Central Falls, Woonsocket, New Shoreham, Newport, and Providence have met the standard.

Preventing many towns from meeting the goal are zoning regulations that require large lot sizes, rising rents (average rents have steadily increased to $1,385 in 2017, according to Kids Count), and with municipalities pushing back, trying to convince a legislative committee to redefine what constitutes affordable housing.

“I think we’re struggling,” says Lee Eastbourne, executive director of the Johnnycake Center in Westerly. “We have some work to do. The key is year-round affordable housing.”

Meanwhile, Kids Count RI says there are 1,245 children that were identified as homeless in 2017 by public school personnel. The top five communities are Providence, 227; Middletown, 115; Warwick, 109; Woonsocket, 91; and Newport, 78.

According to Kids Count, homeless children are more likely to become ill, go hungry twice that of other children, have educational problems, and are more likely to suffer from abuse.

In 2016, the State House of Representatives formed a commission to study the affordable housing law. In a report issued earlier this year, the commission asked to extend its work to 2019.

“While we began exploring the reasons why only five of the state’s cities and towns have complied with the affordable housing law, we have learned this is a very complex and nuanced issue,” said state Rep. Michael A. Morin, the commission’s vice chair.

Among its recommendations, the commission said it would consider rethinking the “means” for towns to meet the law’s requirements.

At a hearing last May, several town planners said the slow-growth in some rural communities made it difficult to meet the mandate, that some waterfront communities lacked adequate developable land. Other suggested a redefinition of affordable housing that would allow mobile homes, section 8 housing, and in-law apartments counted as affordable housing. Scott Wolf, executive director of Grow Smart Rhode Island said the state might consider regional goals rather than municipal goals.

WhatsUpNewp was recently awarded an Impact-Designed Investigative Grant (I-DIG) for investigative reporting from Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION) and the Excellence and Ethics in Journalism Foundation. What’sUpNewp, who was one of 18 grant winners across the country, is using our I-DIG grant to fund this project on Affordable Housing.