Deal Flow

Housing is where jobs go to sleep at night

With housing becoming the inflection point for Rhode Island’s economy, ConvergenceRI sat down to talk with Barbara Fields, CEO and executive director at Rhode Island Housing, to get her take on the solutions needed

Photo courtesy of Rhode Island Housing

Barbara Fields, the executive and CEO at Rhode Island Housing.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 12/10/18
Barbara Fields, the executive director and CEO of Rhode Island Housing, talks about the many solutions needed to address the housing needs in Rhode Island, with a provocative new phrase: housing is where jobs go to sleep at night.
How can the conversation around housing escape the usual silos that exist around economic development? How do efforts around affordable housing and rebuilding neighborhoods from the ground up by community development corporations become part of the discussion? Are there ways to segment the market for graduate student housing that connect with the needs of senior citizens aging in place? What is the corporate responsibility to remove barriers such as segregation from housing opportunities?
One of the issues Barbara Fields discussed is the fact that Rhode Island landlords can still legally discriminate against voucher holders on the basis of income. Winning a voucher is much like winning the lottery, but the inability to find housing that will accept the voucher amounts to income discrimination, according to Fields. Will the 2019 R.I. General Assembly be willing to tackle this issue head on? Stay tuned.

PROVIDENCE – Wherever you go, housing seems to be a major topic of conversation these days, touching everyone. As supply dips and demand increases, as the occupancy rate nears capacity in downtown Providence, as the controversial plans proposed by developer Jason Fane to build a 600-foot tower for luxury apartments creates a passionate divide between community groups, labor unions and developers, as the demand for affordable housing keeps increasing, one of the people who has her finger on the pulse of what is happening is Barbara Fields, executive director and CEO at Rhode Island Housing.

In its 45 years, RI Housing has helped more than 70,000 families buy homes, and financed the construction of some 14,000 apartments for low- and moderate-income Rhode Islanders.

In 2017 alone, the numbers were impressive: RI Housing provided $257 million in financing to construct or rehabilitate 1,671 apartments and 8 home ownership units, and increase of 42 percent from the previous year. In doing so, the agency supported 1,099 jobs.

Still, despite the efforts of RI Housing, Fields began the discussion by framing the housing conundrum in Rhode Island as part of larger conversation about supply and demand nationally, quoting a recent study by Freddie Mac, which talked about the current mismatch between supply and demand.

Even with 1.62 million new units of housing being produced in the last year, the study said that residential construction for residential units has been weak by historical standards for almost a decade.

Further, the study said that the U.S. economy is currently about 2.5 millions short of what is needed to meet long-term demand.

When asked to translate what that means for Rhode Island, Fields responded: “We did a study almost three years ago, it is a little out of date. But even if you were to discount it by 50 percent, we will still need somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 homes and apartments over the next decade to meet growth [projections].”

In talking about growth, Fields made it clear that is wasn’t just about population growth. “I definitely think we are not losing population in Rhode Island; we’re probably somewhere between holding our own and gaining a little. It’s not going to be huge gain, which you might see in other parts of the country, but we may see 2 or 3 percent growth.”

What is really growing, Fields explained, “is household formation.”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Barbara Fields, talking about the future of housing in Rhode Island and its relationship to changing demographics, changing definitions of households, and changing definitions of work.

ConvergenceRI: At Rhode Island Housing, you are really at the crux, at the inflexion point, for the future of Rhode Island. If you are looking at economic development, if you’re looking at community health, if you’re looking at education, it all comes back to housing.
It never gets framed that way on a national stage, literally since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Since then, there hasn’t really been a major housing discussion in this country, except around the Fair Housing Act [five decades ago].

It turns out [that it] was Mitt Romney’s father, George, who tried to further it in the Nixon years, and when he pushed too hard, and they pushed back, and he kept pushing, they made him ambassador to Mexico.

One of the things that we are doing at Rhode Island Housing is bolstering our research and data collection. Because we would like to be seen more as a source for data, even though we serve certain segments of the population.

I believe that the housing market works as a whole, and we should be a source of accurate information that can interpret national trends, regional trends, and then local trends in Rhode Island.

For instance, the thing that is really growing is household formation.

ConvergenceRI: Can you define what you mean by household formation?
A generation ago, [as an example], my son would graduate college, and her daughter [Christine Hunsinger] would graduate college, and they would get married, and they would form one household. Or maybe two generations ago, it was more typical.

Today, he’s got an apartment and she’s got an apartment. They will be two households until they are older, getting married later in life. Eventually, they could be one household.

The other [trend] we haven’t really looked at is how divorce creates two households instead of one household.

A third factor is [the fact] that all of us around the table have a high chance of living into our 80s and 90s.

We have two growth trends to consider: first, the aging of our population; we will have tremendous growth in seniors. Rhode Island housing, for many years, did not put senior applications on a level playing field with family applications for new homes. Obviously, we have always done preservation.

And, there is the growth of the millennial generation, which appears to be a much bigger cohort than the Baby Boomers.

Another factor here is Rhode Island, is that I think we had an undervalued market. I don’t believe the current increases in prices are just a bubble.

One of our biggest challenges is the fact that we simply don’t have enough housing. Demand is high, supply is low, and, as I am fond of saying, there is no solution; there are only solutions.

I can talk to you about programs and things that we should be doing, but there is no magic bullet. We need a variety of pathways to get to the future.

ConvergenceRI: Anecdotally, I have heard, is that the millennials are coming back, but they are staying at their parents’ homes. Do you have data on that?
I saw a data point that said Connecticut had the third highest percentage of millennials living with their parents, based on some census data. We know that this is happening with more families than has happened in the past.

ConvergenceRI: To return to your comments about data, looking at the future, what are the data points that are needed when you talk about many solutions? I was struck by the fact when I interviewed Nelson Taylor recently about the demand for luxury apartments in Providence, he said he really didn’t have any good information about absorption rates by price level.
We have that. When it comes to data and solutions, first of all, we are living longer, so the data points are that people are living longer and staying in their homes longer.

And that means, we either need to help them age in place, or we need the type of housing where they can free up the single family home and move into a different type of living situation. That’s two different solutions for one kind of population.

ConvergenceRI: Are there experimental or pilot programs now in Rhode Island that bring together millennials with aging Baby Boomers in one community, as a way for them to live together?
None that I know of. I’ve seen similar ideas floated in Portland, Ore., and in Europe.

HUNSINGER: You did send me an article about a project in Boston, where they are trying to pair the older folks with graduate students.

FIELDS: Yes, students looking for a place to live when they are in college, where an older person offers them a place to live in their house, for a lower rent, in exchange for help around the house.

That is a solution to the overheated graduate student market.

Barry Bluestone who is an economist who thinks that there is not so much an explosion of students in Massachusetts that has affected the housing market, but that it is an explosion of graduate students, because they tend not to live on campus. Rhode Island has a little bit of that.

I am certainly a person who supports the building of student housing, even the private student housing, because three students can pay $2,700 for an apartment and think that’s great, because it’s $900 each, fairly doable. But for a family to afford $2,700 a month in rent is beyond the range for most families.

ConvergenceRI: What are the kinds of conversations that need to happen around housing? What are the trends beyond demographics that are important to know? What would it take to convene a conversation, say, between you and Joe Paolino, talking about housing in Rhode Island.
I would love to sit down and talk with Joey. He developed these micro-units that were leased up before you could get out the front door.

Last summer, I went to visit Tony Thomas, who is the manager at the Foundry. He’s fully leased. He said that 54 percent of the people living there come out of the Lifespan system.

When we think about a university or a hospital, which are major employers, you might think about the doctors or the professors, but we often forget about the countless other people who work in those systems – the lab technician, the nurse practitioner, the orderly, the maintenance worker, the groundskeeper, the teaching assistant. If you look at the range of incomes, we need to provide for a much greater range than we normally talk about.

We at Rhode Island Housing serve a certain segment of the market, with both an ownership possibility and a rental possibility.

We are trying to expand the reach of our programs, and interestingly enough, we have also beefed up our communications and outreach strategy.

ConvergenceRI: What is the messaging for your communications strategy?
As I was trying to say before, no matter where I go now, everyone is being touched by housing, which is very different than when I sat down to talk with you four years ago when I came here.

People need housing that meets their family’s financial situation. It allows you to understand that people have different situations and different requirements.

ConvergenceRI: And what do you think is the best messaging to communicate that?
We need jobs in Rhode Island, and the governor has been laser-focused on that, and we are starting to experience what that means, which is great for the local economy.

The phrase, which you can attribute to my board chair, Nick Retsinas, is: Housing is where jobs go to sleep at night.

A thriving economy creates jobs for people with a variety of skill sets in a variety of entry points. We need housing for them, that’s the basis of community.

Years ago, Brenda Clement and I came up with the phrase: the road to economic opportunity starts at your front door. [Or you did.]

I think to think of housing as being part of the basic infrastructure of the community: you need homes, you need roads, hospitals, bridges and schools. Home is where children can do their homework, families can come together and celebrate holidays, get a good night’s sleep and be productive members of society.


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