Stock photo from WikiMedia Commons

This is the final story in WhatsUpNewp’s in-depth look at affordable housing in Rhode Island. Of course, we’ll continue to follow up on leads and stories on this subject.

“Political Will.”

That’s what housing advocate after housing advocate suggests it will take to begin resolving what has been described as an affordable housing crisis.

“Political Will.”

In Rhode Island, a special legislative commission said it needs more time to study an affordable housing law passed nearly three decades ago, a law to which only six of the state’s 39 cities and towns have complied.

“Political Will.”

“Build the political will,” said national housing advocate Dr. Tiffany Pastore at HousingWorksRI annual luncheon. “How do I make them care?”

Between May 2016 and May 2018, the special affordable housing legislative commission met eight times, and asked for additional time to continue exploring what it said was a complex issue. “We have learned that this is a very complex and nuanced issue,” commission vice chair Rep. Michael Morin, D-Woonsocket, said. He said the commission hopes to “begin to help cities and towns to understand this law and to comply with it.” The Commission also said it would explore “rethinking what it means to meet the requirements of minimum housing.”

“Political Will.”

In eight states across the country, voters demonstrated their political will last week approving housing measures that will fund construction of affordable housing or expand protections for renters.

  • In California, voters approved a $4 billion bond to fund housing for the poor, farmworkers and veterans. Another $2 billion will be used to build housing for the chronically homeless, people with disabilities, and the mentally ill.
  • In Austin, Texas, voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition A, a $250 million housing bond, with 73 percent voting in favor of the measure that will be used to buy land for affordable housing development, support rental assistance, affordable home ownership, and home repair programs.
  • In Charlotte, NC, 70 percent of voters approved $50 million in bonds to support an affordable housing trust fund.
  • Voters in three counties surrounding Portland, Oregon also approved $653 million in bonds to support affordable housing.
  • Other measures were passed in Bellingham, Washington; San Francisco; and Chapel Hill, NC.

Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, the amount of money the state has earmarked for affordable housing has dropped to some $5.21 per capita, nearly half of what it was three years ago. In virtually all neighboring states the affordable housing budgets have increased, with Massachusetts exceeding $100 per capita.

“Political Will.”

Stephanie Geller, a senior policy analyst at Kids Count RI, said the problem in Rhode Island continues to “get worse.” The problem, as she sees it, is that the law passed 27 years ago in Rhode Island “has no teeth, no penalties or incentives.”

On any given day, more than 1,200 school children in Rhode Island are reported homeless by our state’s public schools; 4,000 plus Rhode Islanders are living in cars, emergency shelters, abandoned buildings; more than a third of homeowners are what HousingWorksRI characterize as cost burdened, spending more than 30 percent of their income on mortgage payments; and HousingWorks characterizes 51 percent of renters as cost burdened.

“Poverty exists,” The AFL-CIO said, “not because we cannot feed the poor, but because we can’t satisfy the rich.”

It’s a statement that carried weight in a survey published on a Providence news blog just before the election that showed affordable housing was not even a blip on a list of what voters perceived as top issues facing the state.

Rhode Island lawmakers can learn from measures approved last week across the country, and from programs that are in place across the country and globe. Some of those programs were described in the Cornell University Real Estate Review.

  • San Francisco. Faced with reduced federal funding, local land-use restrictions and high maintenance costs at public housing properties, the city adopted a five-year plan that involved rental vouchers, a reduction in vacant public housing units, and leveraging private or public funds to create housing opportunities.
  • In New York City, where politicians have recognized the shortage of affordable housing has reached a crisis point, the city has a 10-year plan to create more than 80,000 affordable housing units, while preserving another 120,000 existing units.
  • Vienna. The city “generates” widespread support for public housing. The city owns 25 percent of the housing stock and is involved in another 20 percent.
  • Singapore. The city’s program assures that every citizen has a permanent residence. The city has a specific affordable housing plan.
  • Boulder, Co. requires developers to make at least 20 percent of the total units built permanently affordable for low-income households.

“Political Will”

HousingWorksRI includes four policy recommendations in it 2018 report.

  • “Increase investment in the development and preservation of homes affordable to working Rhode Islanders and those with special housing needs.”
  • “Make it easier to build the homes that meet the needs of current and future residents.”
  • “Make existing housing more affordable.”
  • “Develop a long-term strategy for meeting the State’s housing need.”

Affordable housing advocates are united in their belief that because of the severity of the housing crisis, now is the time for politicians to find their political will.

“Nationally we have a moment,” Dr. Pastore said. “Our challenge is to leverage the data, or we’re going to miss the moment.”

Read more on our Affordable Housing series.

WhatsUpNewp was 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.

Frank Prosnitz

Frank Prosnitz brings to WhatsUpNewp several years in journalism, including 10 as editor of the Providence (RI) Business News and 14 years as a reporter and bureau manager at the Providence (RI) Journal. Prosnitz began his journalism career as a sportswriter at the Asbury Park (NJ) Press, moving to The News Tribune (Woodbridge, NJ), before joining the Providence Journal. Prosnitz hosts the Morning Show on WLBQ radio (Westerly), 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday, and It’s Your Business, also on WBLQ, Monday and Tuesday, 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Prosnitz has twice won Best in Business Awards from the national Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW), twice was named Media Advocate of the Year by the Small Business Administration, won an investigative reporter’s award from the New England Press Association, and newswriting award from the Rhode Island Press Association.