House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi today announced that the House of Representatives will focus its efforts on addressing the state’s housing crisis, introducing a package of legislation aimed at making housing more available and affordable in Rhode Island.

Saying housing is among the most critical challenges facing Rhode Island, he also urged Rhode Islanders to approve Question 3 in tomorrow’s statewide special election to authorize $65 million in bonds for affordable housing development,

“Long before the COVID-19 pandemic reached us, Rhode Island was facing a profound housing crisis. Our housing is not affordable, in short supply, and our housing stock is aging and often not in safe, livable condition,” said Speaker Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick). “Rents are out of reach for average-income families, and those making less than that face enormous challenges finding, let alone paying for an apartment. Rhode Island urgently needs action to meet the housing demands of our population.”

As he announced the introduction of seven bills to address various elements of affordable housing, the speaker was joined at a State House media event today by House Majority Leader Christopher R. Blazejewski (D-Dist. 2, Providence), the House sponsors of the legislation, and a host of housing advocates supporting the measures.

The bills include:

·         Sponsored by Speaker Shekarchi, a bill (2021-H 5951) that would create within the Executive Office of Commerce a deputy secretary of commerce and housing, who will oversee housing initiatives and develop a housing plan that will include affordable housing, strong community building and neighborhood revitalization efforts.

·         A bill (2021-H 5950) also sponsored by Speaker Shekarchi, to create a legislative commission to study all aspects of land use, preservation, development, production, regulation, zoning, housing and the environment. The commission would make recommendations to enable the state to ensure and promote land use that allows for sustainable and equitable economic growth in support of efforts to achieve the state’s affordable housing goals.

·         Legislation (2021-H 5257) sponsored by House Labor Committee Chairwoman Anastasia P. Williams (D-Dist. 9, Providence), which is on the calendar for a vote by the House tomorrow, to prohibit housing discrimination against those who receive government assistance to pay their rent. A 2019 study 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.

·         A bill (2021-H 5953) introduced by Rep. June S. Speakman (D-Dist. 68, Warren, Bristol) creating a special legislative commission to study the Rhode Island Low and Moderate Income Housing Act. A similar commission led by former Rep. Shelby Maldonado was created in 2016, and made numerous recommendations, one of which was to continue studying ways to meet the state’s affordable housing challenges.

·         Legislation (2021-H 5954) introduced by House Floor Manager John G. Edwards (D-Dist. 70, Tiverton, Portsmouth) to extend for three years a tax exemption he originally sponsored to encourage more affordable housing development. The bill, which allows a tax exemption for properties under development until they are occupied, is set to expire Dec. 31.

·         Legislation (2021-H 5632) sponsored by House Deputy Majority Whip Mia A. Ackerman (D-Dist. 45, Cumberland, Lincoln) will require towns and cities to allow tiny homes to be used as accessory dwelling units and to be counted as affordable housing.

·         Legislation (2021-H 5568) introduced by House Deputy Speaker Charlene M. Lima (D-Dist. 14, Cranston, Providence) to more easily enable local planning boards to establish a quorum for votes to help prevent delays in development matters before them.

“These bills and the housing bond that I sincerely hope voters will approve tomorrow represent the beginning of a significant push that our state must make to create more affordable housing. There is much work ahead, and I am committed to working hand-in-hand with all my colleagues in the House and Senate, all the state, municipal and federal leaders, as well as the hard-working advocates who are a great resource of information and ideas,” Speaker Shekarchi said, adding that the House last month changed its rules to add housing to the purview of its newly renamed Municipal Government and Housing Committee to help sharpen the chamber’s focus on this important issue.

The speaker also pointed to the $200 million in rental assistance for Rhode Island that was approved in the federal stimulus package that was signed into law in December as a critical resource that would help the state with some of its most immediate, pandemic-related housing crises.

A group of Rhode Island housing leaders joined today’s announcement in support of the initiatives. Supporters include Pawtucket Housing Authority Executive Director Paula McFarland;  One Neighborhood Builders Executive Director Jennifer Hawkins; Rhode Island Builders Association President Carol O’Donnell and Executive Director John Marcantonio; Rhode Island Realtors Association Government Affairs Director David Salvator; Housing Network of Rhode Island Director of Programs Melina Lodge; United Way of Rhode Island President and CEO Cortney Nicolato; Crossroads Rhode Island President and CEO Karen Santilli; Westbay Community Action President and CEO Paul Salera; and HousingWorksRI Director Brenda Clement.

According to HousingWorksRI, there is no municipality in the state where a household with the median renter income of $34,255 can afford a fair-market two-bedroom apartment, and only three where a household with a $50,000 income can.

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