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Amid expectation of a robust summer season,  Newport and other communities are worried they won’t be able to attract employees into a market where finding affordable seasonal housing is at best difficult, and in some cases nearly impossible, and where wages lag behind neighboring states.

“It certainly will impact us,” says Erin Donovan-Boyle, executive director of the Newport Chamber of Commerce. “It’s been a long time coming but exacerbated by the pandemic.”

Newport, according to Donovan-Boyle and Rhode Island Hospital Association Executive Director Dale Venturini, is likely to benefit from high gasoline prices, as individuals and families seek to vacation closer to home.

Affordable housing is an issue that continues to plague not only Rhode Island but the nation. In Rhode Island, where the state has established a threshold of 10 percent of all housing to be considered affordable, only six of the state’s 39 communities have met that standard. 

Newport is among the six that are compliant, but lack of housing inventory, high rental and ownership costs, have local officials very concerned.

Donovan-Boyle said the Chamber has just started a study of the need for housing and a wage survey. What does it cost, Donovan-Boyle says, “to live (and work) on Aquidneck Island?”  Boyle also says that besides the study, there are some proposals to build affordable housing.

But neither the study nor the projects will do anything to provide housing now in a market, where Donovan-Boyle says inventory is very tight, where you can’t buy a house for under $600,000, and with some seasonal rental properties asking for thousands of dollars a month.

Couple the wage gap and housing crisis with a limitation on visas that would normally bring workers to Newport and South County, prime summer vacation areas.

“Approval for the number of visa candidates has been cut in half,” Donovan-Boyle says.

While the focus is on summer, Donovan-Boyle says it’s year-round, with industries like healthcare also significantly impacted. While Newport Hospital has recruited some high-level employees, Donovan-Boyle says those employees “can’t find a place to live.” It’s about price and inventory, she says. 

The immediate focus is on summer, and Boyle says that for the first time, employers and employees are looking at renting dorm rooms at Salve Regina University, something the university did not do in the past and something the industry did not pursue.

Here are some of the housing challenges that Donovan-Boyle says the industry faces this year:

  • Many of the properties that in the past were available for the summer workforce have changed. There were properties that would rent to Salve students during the school year, and to seasonal workers for the summer. Now, Donovan-Boyle says, many of those have “moved to Air B & B, short term rentals.”
  • Smaller employers, and more than 90 percent of businesses on the Island have less than 50 employees, have “become less competitive because they don’t have housing.” A hotel, she says, “can take rooms offline” for employee housing, but that reduces the number of rooms they can rent.
  • Rents have skyrocketed. Boyle says that six months ago while you could rent a two-bedroom apartment for $2,000, today that might get you a one-bedroom apartment.
  • While some larger employers have the wherewithal to purchase multi-unit housing for employees, many don’t have that capability.

The challenges extend to wages as well, where Boyle says wages in Rhode Island are generally lower than neighboring states. In a tight job market that means that potential employees can find better opportunities elsewhere.

Donovan-Boyle says that while “front of the house,” waiters and waitresses, do very well in Rhode Island, other jobs are not competitive, like housekeeping.

A website, Indeed, lists the average wage for housekeepers in Rhode Island at $14.66 an hour, compared to Massachusetts at $15.49 an hour. Translated to a 40-hour week, that’s $32,219 in Massachusetts and $30,493 in Rhode Island.

Salary.com says the average annual salary in Rhode Island for housekeepers Is $28,898. For Massachusetts, Salary.com says the average annual salary for housekeepers is $29,752.

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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.