Innovation Ecosystem

Will housing investments make the budget priority list?

The intimate connections between health, housing, education, the economy and community have become more visible in a time of pandemic

Image courtesy of HousingWorks RI

Rhode Island trails other New England states in the per capita spending on housing. Without either a new housing bond or a state dedicated funding stream, Rhode Island's spending on housing per capita will once again plummet to under $10 per capita, according to Brenda Clement, director of HousingWorks RI.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/18/20
In a time of pandemic and severe budget constraints, the questions around housing policies and future investments in affordable housing in Rhode Island are yet to be determined in terms of FY2021 budget priorities. A Zoom discussion sponsored by MLPB offered some provocative insights into the challenges.
What priority will be given to expanding investments in Health Equity Zones in Rhode Island as a critical piece of affordable housing and community development policies by the Governor? What are the proper legal liability discussions that need to occur around nursing homes in Rhode Island during the current coronavirus pandemic? Will the pause in evictions be continued past the June 1, 2020, deadline? Which health insurer in Rhode Island will consider making an investment in building and maintaining affordable housing as a component of a “housing prescription” initiative? How can the conversations occurring in Zoom conferences be expanded to broader audiences as part of a community engagement strategy?
So far, the Rhode Island Foundation and United Way of Rhode Island have provided the philanthropic backbone to keep the state’s safety from fraying during the coronavirus pandemic, absent the ability of the R.I. General Assembly to step in and provide continued funding for community agencies struggling to stay afloat. A total of $3.7 million in new grants to was distributed last week to more than three dozen community agencies by the Rhode Island Foundation from the the COVID-19 Behavioral Health Fund last.
The larger question facing Rhode Island will be whether or not the R.I. General Assembly chooses to borrow money, given the very low interest rates, to keep the operations of government stable.
Some conservatives, since the time of President Ronald Reagan, have argued that government is the "enemy of the people." If nothing else has been accomplished during the coronavirus pandemic, the government’s efforts – both at the state and national level – has demonstrated the importance of the role that government can and should play in our lives – in health care, in education, in housing, in preserving small businesses, and in supporting workers who have lost their jobs.

PROVIDENCE – No one doubts the mounting evidence that the current housing crisis in Rhode Island is severe and needs to be addressed, even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and the projected FY 2021 state budget deficit estimated to be more than $800 million.

The inaugural Rhode Island Life Index, produced by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island in partnership with the School of Public Health at Brown University, found that the lack of affordable housing was the top priority identified. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Taking the pulse of Rhode Island life.”]

As Kim Keck, president and CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island put it, when she introduced the findings at the public release of the Rhode Island Life Index on Oct. 23, 2019, “Zip code is more important than genetic code” in determining health outcomes.”

That finding was magnified and reinforced by a coalition of housing advocates, “Homes RI,” at its inaugural conference held on Dec. 11 at Rhode Island College.

As ConvergenceRI reported, “Everyone pretty much agrees that Rhode Island is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis as the state prepares to enter the third decade of the 21st century. Housing may be the place where jobs go to sleep at night, but what if there is no place to go?”

The all-day confab organized by Homes RI sought to connect the dots between housing and health care, housing and education, and housing and the struggle for civil rights, in order to build a public narrative for social change and civic engagement.

Perhaps, more importantly, the new coalition sought to apply political leverage on Gov. Gina Raimondo to have her include a dedicated stream of revenue for the funding of affordable housing in her FY2021 state budget. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “The path to opportunity begins at the front door of your home.”

That advocacy effort proved to be successful; it also won the support of R.I. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio in making investments in housing a budget priority.

However, in a time of pandemic, what will get top priority during a time of extreme budget constraints is anyone’s guess.

Tying the proverbial bell on the housing cat
The rapid spread of the coronavirus in congregate living centers such as nursing homes and in group homes – and in densely populated urban neighborhoods in Rhode Island, has put a harsh spotlight on the affordable housing crisis, one exacerbated by the pandemic: How do you isolate or quarantine to prevent the spread of the virus when you and your family live in cramped living quarters?

Among the unresolved budget and policy questions around housing in Rhode Island are: What should be the plans of action moving forward, and where precisely should those investments be made? Which is what made the Zoom gathering hosted by MLPB on Wednesday morning, May 13, such a provocative, informative conversation.

[Unfortunately, like many Zoom conferences these days, the discussions occurred in a relative silo, with limited opportunities for community engagement beyond the participants – and with no news media coverage, save for ConvergenceRI.]

MLPB is a Boston-based nonprofit whose mission is “advancing health through justice,” which focuses on addressing housing solutions as a key component of achieving better health outcomes, often by pursing legal advocacy as an integral part of its strategy.

The Zoom gathering, which replaced the annual MLPB “spring breakfast,” was entitled: “Old or new, ‘normal’ hasn’t cut it: innovative strategies to promote housing stability among families with young children.”

In its description of the Zoom gathering, MPLB said that it would be facilitating “mission-critical dialogue with thought leaders who are successfully promoting housing stability for families with young children. While family housing insecurity has always mattered, the COVID-19 reality creates new and urgent space to unlock access to health-promoting resources and legal protections.” No small task.

At the table, listening
ConvergenceRI joined more than 100 other participants on the Zoom gathering, including many housing, health and legal advocates from Rhode Island – and one state representative, which featured three panel discussions and questions.

While not shy when it comes to asking questions, ConvergenceRI must admit that he is still learning how best to navigate facilitated online conversations that occur as virtual online communities. The best strategy was to listen to what was being said.

Still, a number of comments stood out as takeaways from the discussion.

One conversation was about the efforts led by the Boston Medical Center to develop a “housing prescription” program tied to the provision of health services, a program that did not appear to have a similar Rhode Island counterpart, being led by a health system. [Similarly, a program developed by UnitedHealthcare to build housing for the homeless in Phoenix, seems to have no Rhode Island counterpart yet, despite the national publicity around the initiative in Arizona.]

• Allison Bovell-Ammon is the director of policy strategy at Children’s Health Watch at Boston Medical Center, and a co-leader of “Housing Prescriptions as Health Care for Families,” an innovative project connecting high health care-utilizing families experiencing housing instability with services tailored to improve housing stability and health.

After six months, many of the participants in the innovative “Housing Prescriptons” project, Bovell-Ammon said, were still not in stable housing. But she said that having someone listen to them and to advocate for their cases was making a real difference. “They don’t feel so alone,” she said.

• Yusuf Ali, the network coordinator for the Vital Village Network at Boston Medical Center, has focused his work on the empowerment of families and individuals with access to data and resources related to wealth, food access and civic engagement. Working together with Soojin Conover, the senior data analyst at the Vital Village Network at Boston Medical Center, they have developed an accessible database that tracks information directly related to the lives and well-being of residents.

A third takeaway was an interesting discussion that took place around the conflict between providing “information” and the need for “political will” to change the equation, in comments offered by Salin Geevarghese, president and CEO of SGG Insight, LLC, who had previously served as HUD’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Philanthropic Innovation. Geervarghese shared his surprise when approximately 75 percent of comments made on a new proposed housing rule in 2015 were filled with racist invective. Just developing a new housing rule was no longer enough, he said.

Local talent
A participant in one of three panel discussions was Brenda Clement, the director of HousingWorksRI at Roger Williams University. Following the Zoom gathering, ConvergenceRI reached out to Clement to ask her some follow-up questions.

ConvergenceRI: One of the conversations that stood out for me was a report that a woman working with Providence Community Health Centers who said that one of her patients had given birth to a [premature infant] had been evicted. That seems to be an egregious case, in apparent violation of the R.I. Attorney General’s current policy? Had you heard about that case before?
I had not heard of this case before, and I am not sure of the details of that case. But we were successful in getting a short reprieve for the opening of eviction calendar. The moratorium was supposed to expire tonight [May 17] but has now been extended until June 1, 2020.

ConvergenceRI: How do you think an initiative similar to the “housing prescriptions” project could be rolled out here in Rhode Island?
I assume that you are referring to comments that physicians have said repeatedly that they wish they could write a “prescription” for their patients to obtain an affordable and healthy home.

This is a great idea but the problem is how to “fill” that prescription in Rhode Island. As our 2019 HousingWorks RI Factbook showed, the list of Rhode Island municipalities where it is affordable to own or rent has reached new lows in recent years.

There is no municipality where the state median renter income of $32,361 will enable you to rent a typical two-bedroom apartment. There are no municipalities where a household with $50,000 in income can buy [an affordablre home].

ConvergenceRI: How would you weigh in on the discussion around the need for political will, and not just “information,” to support the development of more affordable housing?
Despite growing need, we have not been building enough housing particularly affordable units for a long time.

The Governor’s budget this year included for the first time a dedicated funding stream for affordable housing production and another housing bond.

As you can see from the attached state investments chart, the last housing bond increased our state spending on long-term affordable homes to $21.90 per capita. That bond has been almost fully committed, so without either a new housing bond or a state dedicated funding stream, our spending per capita will once again plummet to under $10 per capita.[See image above.]

With high unemployment rates, we know that the number of Rhode Islanders who will struggle to pay rent or mortgage payments will continue to grow.

Rhode Island General Law 45-53 established a goal that 10 percent of every city or town’s housing stock qualify as low-moderate income housing. The law was passed more than 20 years ago but only six of Rhode Island’s 39 communities meet this goal – Burrillville, Central Falls, Newport, New Shoreham, Providence and Woonsocket.

Asking questions
Now that the Governor’s daily news briefing has gone back to live, in-person questions, the ability to submit questions to the Governor and her team has proven to be a much more cumbersome process, in ConvergenceRI’s experience.

Following participation on the MLPB Zoom conference discussion on Wednesday, May 13, , ConvergenceRI reached out that same day to both Josh Block, the Governor’s press secretary, and to Joseph Wendelken, the R.I. Department of Health’s public information office, to ask about plans that the state might have to develop a “housing prescription” policy similar to the one in Massachusetts.

It took a number two days to receive a response, but thanks to Wendelken’s diligence, an answer arrived on Friday evening.

ConvergenceRI: In terms of housing policies moving forward, is there consideration of developing a “housing prescription” policy, similar to what has been done in Massachusetts, focusing on linking health and housing policies?
As you know, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, [the director of the R.I. Department of Health], has been talking for a long time about the link between housing and health.

For example ONE Neighborhood Builders [a Health Equity Zone backbone agency], has a whole focus on expanding access to affordable housing. They are redeveloping distressed and vacant properties into safe, affordable apartments and homes.

The West Elmwood HEZ is another example. Dr. Alexander-Scott has been strategizing with members of the Commission for Health Advocacy and Equity on how to leverage this moment to get support behind policies to build health at the community level by addressing socioeconomic and environmental determinants of health, such as housing.

As is clearly visible right now, the health of all of Rhode Island depends on the health of all its communities.

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