Deal Flow

Future of housing in RI is in bloom. Can you see it?

An interview with Brenda Clement, the director of HousingWorks RI, talking about housing in a post-pandemic world

Image courtesy of ONE Neighborhood Builders

A simulation of what the Sheridan Small Home Project will look like in Olneyville when it is completed in the fall of 2020.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/25/20
There will be no returning to the status quo, despite all the wishing in the world, in the post-pandemic world. It is time now to begin the conversation about what our future post-pandemic world will look like in Rhode Island, particularly when it comes to housing, where there is already a crisis in the lack of affordable housing. An interview with Brenda Clement, the director of HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University, begins to frame the questions that need to be answered, moving forward.
What does the data tell us about why people want to live and work in Rhode Island, beyond the branding campaigns? Will Providence Water fully identify what are the residences where high concentrations of lead in drinking water have been found? What will happen after the stay on evictions is lifted on June 1 in Rhode Island? Will the R.I. General Assembly continue to push forward with the controversial Fane Tower development in the wake of the pandemic? Will elementary schools in Providence move forward with plans to install HVAC ventilation systems to cleanse the air?
With everyone seeming to talk at you, hardly ever listening to what you are saying or caring about, it still surprises me how little is being communicated about the bigger picture problems that we all must confront moving forward in a post-pandemic world. In my limited world, I see and observe very few people who are willing to abandon wearing a mask in public, regardless of what the President does, because for them, it is choice about their own life and death. The inconvenience of wearing a mask pales with the problems related to being incubated because you have COVID-19 and are now unable to breathe on your own.
We are relatively lucky to live in Rhode Island, where there is an ongoing attempt to provide transparent information, compared to states such as Georgia, Arkansas, Arizona, Nebraska, Alabama, South Dakota and Florida, where the flow of information has been constricted, it seems, by the political agenda of the governors.
Not everything has been perfect in terms of data here in Rhode Island, for sure, but I believe we must remember: this is a novel coronavirus, and there are many things that we still do not know, and there will be a learning curve. The dislike reality is that the virus will be with us for a long time – including a second wave and possibly a third wave of infection. The virus may evolve from a pandemic into an endemic threat, something always present in our future lives.
The work on vaccines remains a critical focus, but making promises about vaccines, as the Trump administration has done, is flawed policy. It would be better if we could listen to those on the front lines of vaccine research, such as Lenny Moise and Dr. Annie De Groot at EpiVax, to talk about the latest in vaccine developments, to give us a better understanding.

PROVIDENCE – The signs of spring and a rebirth of wonder are visible everywhere, even in the midst of a terrible pandemic, if you can see them. Such harbingers are beyond the range of most news gathering enterprises, with their constricted apertures, pursuing stories that are caught up in the metrics of our now dearly departed normalcy, wanting to preserve the status quo, caught up in the search for clicks as advertising, like so many jobs, has disappeared.

Take, for instance, the story of Sheridan Small Homes, a condominium community of five affordable, single-family, net-zero energy homes being built by ONE Neighborhood Builders, along Riverside Park in Olneyville, with a monthly cost, including mortgage payment, utilities [actually a net positive from the solar system], and a condo fee of $965, far below the prevailing market for rental properties.

The prices for the five homes start at $140,000, and the demand has been so great that ONE Neighborhood Builders has instituted a lottery, with applications due on July 3. Each of the five small homes feature two bedrooms, 1.5 bathrooms, a balcony, and 750 square feet of living space, as well as private vehicle parking.

As Rhode Island is fixated upon the gradual reopening of its economy, and the news media has returned to its calculated game of “gotcha” in the daily news briefings with the Governor, the news of the Sheridan Small Homes project and its scheduled completion by the fall of 2020 has fallen far below the radar screen. Why is that?

A return to the status quo
As therapists will tell you, if you ask, in the midst of major disruptions in our lives, the tendency is to want to fall back on bad patterns of behavior, where there is a known comfort zone, even if it is a destructive path.

ConvergenceRI is continuing to create a dialogue around what the future post-pandemic world may look like, where the definition of work, offices, health care, and neighborhoods have been upended.

To re-imagine the future, to engage in conversation around the changes that need to take place, needs to happen in a much different way, too. It is not a dialogue that should be determined in top-down fashion, by CEOs and corporate consultants such as Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey, and Deloitte. The question is: how do people who are not the “elites” get to participate and make decisions?

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Brenda Clement, the director of HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University, as we move forward into the recovery phase of the coronavirus pandemic, with a focus on housing – the place where jobs go to sleep at night, the place where prosperity begins at the front door.

ConvergenceRI: Do we need to rethink the standard single-family home, the model of suburban living promoting after World War II? If so, what kinds of neighborhoods and housing opportunities do we need to develop?
CLEMENT:
HousingWorks RI envisions a Rhode Island in which communities embrace a variety of housing choices so that residents, regardless of income, can live in healthy, quality homes in vibrant and thriving neighborhoods.

Our public health crisis has elevated the need to address the housing challenges that our state has faced for a long time.

As we move into a recovery phase, HousingWorks RI and other housing advocates are eager to improve existing state and local laws, increase resources for affordable housing and look for new ways to reuse or redesign our communities to benefit all.

We also hope that this crisis forces us to address housing and other needs in minority and low-income neighborhoods that have been hardest hit by COVID-19.

ConvergenceRI: Nursing homes have become the “hot spots” for the spread of the coronavirus, in large part because they are congregant living settings that are virtual ghettos for older folks, set apart from the rest of the world, an important cog in the “continuum of care” in the health care delivery system. How can we re-envision nursing homes and assisted living facilities as part of a vibrant community that engages different generations?
CLEMENT:
Again, as we move into recovery phase, this will be a critical issue for our state to address.

Prior to COVID-19, HousingWorks RI, with support from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of RI, began working with our colleagues at Age-Friendly RI and others to identify the housing challenges facing seniors.

Looking at ways to re-envision nursing homes needs to be addressed but also looking for ways for more seniors to age in place or community.

A few years ago, the R.I. General Assembly passed the Accessory Dwelling Unit [ADU] legislation and created a small home modification loan fund for seniors and disabled individuals. This is a start but more tools and resources are needed.

We also should think about the workers who support our seniors at home or in nursing home or assisted living facilities. Can we use ADUs to create homes for community health workers to reside in and provide services to a neighborhood? Or can we re-design nursing homes to provide housing for workers as well? Further discussion and input from all stakeholders is critical.

ConvergenceRI: Similarly, given that homes are becoming the new office, how do we rethink the concept of “office buildings” and “corporate” headquarters as a new concept in housing?
CLEMENT:
This crisis provides an opportunity for us to rethink how we use buildings and spaces as we recover from the economic damage caused by COVID-19.

We should also look at how to redesign or re-purpose vacant commercial and retail spaces in our communities. The smart growth principles that our colleagues at Grow Smart RI have developed should serve as our guide as we think about reuse.

ConvergenceRI: Is there a way to think differently about home ownership?
CLEMENT:
Based on our past experience after the “Great Recession” and now with unprecedented unemployment numbers, we know that homeowners will face significant challenges in the upcoming months.

In the short-term, we need resources to deal with the likely increase in foreclosures and scams [Sen. Jack Reed has introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate to address these issues].

In the longer-term, we need to step up our efforts to increase the homeownership rate in our state, particularly for minorities and in lower-income neighborhoods. Our colleagues at the Housing Network of RI administer the statewide community land trust and coordinate homebuyer education and counseling programs – both are important tools that need more resources.

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