Xay. Contributed photo

At the Newport City Council’s January 4th Goal Setting Workshop, every member of the Council identified the City’s housing shortage as a top priority. The data from the 2021 U.S. Census’s American Community Survey supports what we hear every day from our community: Newport has a housing crisis.

Since 2015, the cost to own a home in Newport has increased 64% to median of $745,000.  Over this same period rents have increased 35%, at nearly double the State average. 

Figuring out how we address this challenge starts by understanding how we got to this point. As Hemingway might explain, Newport’s housing crisis happened “gradually, then suddenly.”  Over decades, Newport gradually went from a community of 47,000 people in 1960, to one struggling to house half that number today. Then suddenly, Newport’s surge in popularity as a destination accelerated a gradually worsening problem into a crisis.

One driver is an anemic growth in the construction of new housing units.  Since 2000, Newport has only added a net 24 units of housing – a 0.18% growth rate.  For comparison, housing statewide grew by 9% over that same period. 

It can be difficult to reconcile these statistics with the construction boom we see across the City. The reality is that projects adding multiple units of housing – like the conversion of the Cranston Calvert School – were offset by the city-wide tide of conversions of multi-family homes into high-end single-family residences. 

As an island that’s 90% built out, we need options to maintain our existing density of residents. This starts with reversing the above trend with policies that support the full use of our existing housing stock.  The City needs to allow for options like accessory dwelling units (think carriage house and in-law apartments) specifically built for residents.  Simultaneously, we need to move swiftly on the conversion of vacant properties that can create multiple housing units, like the Coggeshall School property.

One of Newport’s charms is its incredible historic architecture.  60% of the City’s housing stock was built prior to 1939.  The City has done yeoman’s work preserving these neighborhoods, but it has done so working with a zoning code that was overlaid on our existing historic neighborhoods. This means the overwhelming majority of homes in residential districts are considered non-conforming, thereby requiring extensive and costly approvals for minor alterations to keep homes livable.  The City needs to modernize its zoning code if housing is to remain within reach of those who live here.

Finally, Newport needs to be a community that prioritizes using housing stock as homes rather than investments.  The 2021 census found that nearly 1 in 4 Newport homes were “vacant”, meaning that upon inspection, the property was vacant or not used as primary dwelling.   This is the “dark neighborhood” phenomenon that pervades in every neighborhood across the City.  We need to consider the cost to our community of entire middle-class homes being used as short-term rentals and investment properties that sit vacant for the majority of the year.  

This is not a theoretical cost.  A recent Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council report found that Newport’s cost for public safety per capita was some of the highest in the state, despite its cost per service call to be on par. This reflects the fact that Newport has to maintain a year-round level of city services sufficient to cover its average summer population.  Further, it has to pay more to attract employees to commute to the Island because housing is out of reach for them. The City needs the ability ensure this financial burden is more fairly distributed.

The City Council is listening to the community, has quantified the issue, and is moving forward with policies to help address these issues. By working together, we will rebalance housing for Newporters.


Mayor, City of Newport