Since July, a group of talented, motivated stakeholders in our state’s housing arena have been lending their expertise to the House of Representatives to help identify the forces behind Rhode Island’s housing crisis and the most effective paths toward solutions.
This group—the Special Legislative Commission to Study Rhode Island’s Low and Moderate Income Housing Act — has heard from experts from across the policy spectrum. We have listened to planners from urban, rural and suburban communities; HousingWorks RI, the League of Cities and Towns and AARP; state agencies charged with housing policy; and community development corporations responsible for building housing. We will continue with appearances by builders, environmentalists, land use attorneys and Rhode Island’s new Deputy Secretary for Housing.
Several key themes have emerged that will guide our recommendations. We know:
Fully one-third of Rhode Island families — 139,000 households — are cost-burdened, spending more than 30% of their income on housing.
Too few new or rehabilitated houses and apartments have moved onto the market in the past 10 years.
The law requiring at least 10 percent of the housing stock in all Rhode Island communities be affordable has not worked. Only six of Rhode Island’s 39 municipalities meet that standard.
Too many communities have zoning codes preventing the kind of development that will alleviate this supply problem.
These zoning codes must be changed in a way that the community accepts, that promotes livable, comfortable neighborhoods.
This development must be mindful of environmentally sensitive areas and built in a way that addresses climate change.
State government must take a leadership role in addressing this crisis — leading, yes, with its partners: municipal governments, private developers, nonprofit developers. But leading.
To exercise that leadership, state government must address the following:
The state entities that manage housing policy are scattered across several agencies; They should be consolidated into a cabinet-level Department of Housing.
The state needs to assess in a more granular fashion who needs what kinds of housing and where; and what land and buildings are available right now to meet those needs.
The state must take seriously the concerns raised by developers—both for-profit and nonprofit—about the broken permitting process: It’s too long; different in every community; overreliant on paper; insufficiently supported by technical experts, attorneys and planners; and biased toward killing projects rather than facilitating them.
And the state must ensure the development process is connected to human needs: that the units built aren’t just buildings, but are buildings appropriate for Rhode Islanders who need safe, comfortable housing that consumes no more than 30% of their budget.
My colleagues in the General Assembly recognize that affordable housing is a worthy investment. In recent months we’ve dedicated funding to creating it, through both our American Rescue Plan funds and a permanent funding stream established in this year’s state budget.
This funding is essential and a great start, but funding is only part of what we need to get homes and apartments built and rehabbed for Rhode Islanders. This complex crisis developed over years, and solving it will take time and a creative, collaborative, multifaceted approach.
I’ve learned through our commission’s work that Rhode Island has the expertise to develop these solutions. Along with my colleagues on the commission, Representatives Anastasia Williams and Michael Chippendale, I look forward to helping our state identify the path toward transforming our housing supply to meet Rhode Islanders’ needs into the future.
Rep. June Speakman (D-Dist. 68, Warren, Bristol) is chairwoman of the Special Legislative Commission to Study Rhode Island’s Low and Moderate Income Housing Act.