Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

A ‘metza metza’ job of reporting

When it comes to housing and to health care, the political reporters covering the 2022 gubernatorial campaign keep swinging and missing in covering the big stories

Image courtesy of RI Housing document

More than two decades of falling building permits was a major reason behind the current housing crisis in Rhode Island, as documented in a 20116 statewide housing study conduced by RI Housing.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 8/22/22
The failure of reporters to hold candidates accountable for what they claim, such as Gov. McKee’s statement that there had never been a statewide housing study, has contributed to voter’s disaffection for the electoral process. Further, the failure by political reporters to identify the potent political response by women voters upset by the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade is bad reporting.
Why has there not been more discussion of the comprehensive “Transit-Oriented Development study conducted by HousingWorks RI? Is there a way to replicate the process followed by the mayoral forum held on Aug. 4 by RICARES and other recovery groups, with questions asked by members of the recovery community? When will the work of community agencies providing services be considered “small businesses” in Rhode Island? Is there a way to quantify the ROI in terms of jobs vs. affordable housing, the idea that housing is where jobs go to sleep at night?
Last week, Scotland became the first nation to offer tampons and other period products free to anyone who needs them – as part of a push to end “period poverty.” As a result, menstrual products will be available free in public spaces such as community centers, pharmacies and youth clubs. “We are the first but won’t be the last,” said Monica Lennon, a member of Parliament who kick-started the Scottish legislation in 2020, as reported by The Washington Post.
Imagine what would happen here in Rhode Island if one of the candidates running for Governor announced their support for such an initiative in the Ocean State, where menstrual products were offered free of charge in public spaces and in schools? Do you think that it would galvanize women voters in Rhode Island to support such an initiative – and the candidate who advocated for it?

PROVIDENCE – With three weeks to go until the Sept. 13 Democratic primary for Governor, the race has turned into a sprint to the finish line, with the candidates turning to the paid airwaves to drive home their messaging. The question is: Is anybody listening?

Boston Globe columnist Dan McGowan has dubbed it the “meh” – Yiddish for blah – campaign, pointing to the large number of “undecided” voters in the most recent polling conducted by WPRI, released on Tuesday, Aug. 16. If only a slice of Gregg’s chocolate cake were the reward for voting, perhaps voters would be more enthusiastic.

Then again, the problem of having “too many undecided voters” is not something to blame on the candidates, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion. Rather, the source of the apparent “lack of enthusiasm” may lie with the problematic news reporting, which has been metza metzaso-so in Yiddish. As a result, voters have had a hard time discerning the differences between the candidates.

For all their differences, the candidates – Gov. Dan McKee, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, Matt Brown, Luis Daniel Munoz, and Helena Foulkes – have found somewhat surprising common ground in what they believe are the biggest issues are confronting Rhode Island: the lack of “affordable” housing, and the breakdown of the health care delivery system, which some critics say operates more like a market extracting wealth than a system delivering care.

Housing is health care and health care is housing – and the portions are always too expensive and too small. Where the candidates differ is whether there is a need to invest in the status quo or a need to disrupt the status quo. The reporters’ style – the “he says this, she says that” approach– keeps missing the mark, leaving the voters to figure out what’s right – and what’s wrong – with the candidates, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion.

For most residents and voters in Rhode Island, the big issues of health care and housing are not really a surprise, because they have been coping with them as part of their day-to-day survival, navigating the alleged post-pandemic world that never seems to quite reach the endemic stage.

The climate crisis would/could/should be a bigger issue, but at the most recent debate, climate conversations only garnered a fleeting reference from Matt Brown, in his closing statement. Was that because WPRO was hosting the debate, where coverage of climate urgency is rarely ever a topic of conversation on the radio talk shows?

The really big issue
The really big issue that will drive voters to the polls on primary day in September and again on Election Day in November may prove to be the Supreme Court decision to overturn the legal precedent of Roe v. Wade, ending a woman’s right to choose her own health care. The Court’s decision has energized the ongoing legislative assault against women’s health being waged by Republicans at the state level across the country, where Republicans seem intent on even punishing women who are having miscarriages. Can you spell misogyny?

Indeed, in the latest Aug. 20 “Nesi Notes,” when talking about voter motivation to go to the polls, WPRI’s Ted Nesi only offers an aside about the politics of abortion, saying that in the waning weeks of the campaign, “Gorbea is beating Gov. McKee among women, who may make up a larger-than-usual share of primary voters” [emphasis added]. Why is that? What is the motivation? Why is it so difficult to talk about abortion rights out loud?

Who wants to hear what?
In the last month, the gubernatorial candidates have appeared in numerous forums and debates, talking to audiences in a way that allows them to talk in silos about the issues, telling the audiences what they wanted to hear, such as on environment and climate issues before the Environmental Council of Rhode Island on Aug. 2, and the challenge of growing old in Rhode Island at the forum hosted by Senior Agenda Coalition on Aug. 3.

ConvergenceRI listened to the debate on talk radio WPRO on Monday, Aug. 15, moderated by Bill Batholomew, but found himself distracted by the claims made early on by Gov. Dan McKee, in response to a question from Bartholomew, who asked: “How do you reset the housing market for all of Rhode Islanders?”

After listing some of the investments that his administration has made, Gov. McKee said, in a rambling, run-on sentence: “What I was very surprised about, with all the people working on housing over the years, there’s not a written state housing plan, and we will have a written state housing plan, and we will bring all 39 cities and towns to the table, and we will address exactly what needs to be done, and then each community, we will invite, and we will certainly encourage and strongly encourage that they are going to participate in addressing the issues that have to do with housing.”

Translated, Gov. McKee claimed that there had never been a state plan on housing. Further, he appeared to blame housing advocates in years past for not doing so. Now, McKee seemed to be saying, he was going to solve the problem by bringing all the towns and cities to the table.

[Editor’s Note: The claim that there has been a lack of a plan when it comes to affordable housing has been a consistent drumbeat from Gov. McKee. During a one-on-one interview conducted by ConvergenceRI with Gov. McKee on Oct. 15, 2021, in response to a question about how Gov. McKee defined the term, “affordable,” he said: “One of the things that I think is lacking, Richard, is that we have a lot of estimates about what the need is, but I have not really seen a plan in terms of how to address that.” See link to ConvergenceRI story below, “When patience and persistence pay off.”]

Truth or consequences
The problem with Gov. McKee’s statement claiming that there were no statewide housing plans is that it is inaccurate, misleading, and just plain wrong. There was a comprehensive housing plan, developed by Rhode Island Housing, produced by HousingWorksRI, using both qualitative and quantitative research, and made public in April of 2016.

• Six years ago, in April of 2016, Rhode Island Housing published a detailed, in-depth 52-page report, “Projecting Future Housing Needs Report,” a work conducted under contract by HousingWorksRI.

The data-driven, evidence-based document described, with stunning accuracy and precision, how the current affordable housing crisis now crippling the state of Rhode Island would unfold. The report identified the demographic challenges the state faced and it also provided a comprehensive list of solutions. Perhaps the only missing ingredient from the document was a timeline for implementation, to turn it into a plan of action. [See link below to 2016 housing study.]

The plan quantified the problems facing Rhode Island: a lack of housing starts to meet the growing demand; a lack of state investment in housing construction; changing demographics that shifted the burden on what kinds of housing was needed; the problems created by older housing stock in need of rehabilitation; and tax incentives that encouraged investments in companies but not in housing.

The plan also captured, through focus groups, the qualitative research needed to confirm the quantitative findings. Further, the study pinpointed what the potential solutions were to overcome the growing deficiencies in the housing market. The question is: Why was Gov. McKee apparently unaware of the 2016 study? And, why didn’t any reporters pick up on the problem with the Governor’s statement?

For the record, ConvergenceRI covered the release of the plan in April of 2016, in a story entitled, “Meds, eds, and beds,” with the subhead: “A new report documents the critical need for housing in Rhode Island, which has ranked 51st in the nation [including D.C.] in the last five years in new residential building permits.” [See link below to ConvergenceRI story.]

Here is an excerpt of what the plan found:

• A large and growing percentage of Rhode Island’s owners and renters are paying more than they can afford for housing costs – 40 percent of all households are cost burdened, the highest percentage in New England.

The number of cost burdened renters and owners in the state grew by 44 percent from 2000 to 2012.

• The state’s population is aging and growing more diverse. The number of Rhode Islanders age 65 and older is projected to grow by 40 percent [65,750 persons] by 2025.

Twenty-five years ago, nearly 90 percent of the state’s population was non-Latino White; now that ratio is 75 percent and is projected to drop to 71 percent by 2025.

• The total population and number of households in the state are projected to increase at different rates over the next 10 years. Population is projected to grow by 3-5 percent by 2025 [34,500 to 47,379 additional persons]. Households are projected to grow by12 -13 percent by 2025 [47,441 to 52,853 additional households].

Increased number of households will drive the need for production of more housing, particularly apartments for households earning less than 80 percent of Area Median Income. Anticipated demand for 34,610 to 40,230 new housing units, more than 80 percent of which are multifamily. Up to 75 percent of new households will have incomes less than 80 percent AMI.

• Market rate and affordable housing stocks are aging and facing substantive rehabilitation and preservation needs.

Rhode Island has a higher percentage of multifamily rental units built prior to 1940 than any other state. Over 6,000 existing affordable homes will need to be preserved over the next five years.

• Many of Rhode Island’s growing demographic groups have a need or preference for housing that is connected to jobs, transportation and services.

Rhode Island’s growing elderly and lower-income populations will need access to public transportation or to be close to jobs and services.

The report’s qualitative evaluation shows a strong interest among all groups for housing that is connected, accessible and part of a lively community with high quality of place.

A housing roadmap laid out six years ago
The 52-page plan also laid out a series of policy recommendations for the state to follow in pursuing a more equitable housing future.

Here are the policy solutions recommended by the study:

• Increase investment in the development and preservation of homes affordable to working Rhode Islanders and those with special housing needs.

Addressing the significant existing shortfall of homes affordable to low-income Rhode Islanders and meeting the growing future housing needs for this population will require increased investment of federal, state and private resources.

Rhode Island trails our New England neighbors in housing and homelessness investments by a wide margin, with a state investment of $8.46 per capita in Fiscal Year 2016 compared to $76.98 per capita in Connecticut and $99.72 per capita in Massachusetts.

The private sector has a key role to play as investors in tax credit programs that provide equity for the development of affordable homes, such as the Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program and the State’s new Rebuilding Rhode Island Tax Credit.

As capital funding for housing has declined, so has the production of affordable homes. In 2014, 101 affordable homes were produced in Rhode Island, the lowest annual production level in 10 years. There are a number of options to consider for increasing investment through all of these resources to finance the production of more affordable homes.

Recommended strategies
The plan laid out in detail recommended strategies to pursue, some of which have finally been adopted by the state. They included

• Explore options for a permanent funding stream to provide capital for housing development over the long term.

Many states, including Rhode Island, have established Housing Trust Funds to finance housing development. While Rhode Island’s has never been funded, in other places, these funds are supported by fees or taxes that provide a sustainable and predictable resource for capital financing.

• Seek increases in federal funding and explore new federal funding opportunities.

While federal appropriations for housing development continue to decline, other strategies for increasing investment in housing development at the federal level have been proposed, and some are even moving forward.

For instance, the federal Housing Trust Fund will start allocating resources to states in 2016, and Rhode Island is projected to receive approximately $3 million annually through the program. The current federal administration has also proposed changes to allow states to convert some of their Private Activity Bond authority to Low Income Housing Tax Credits, an extremely successful and competitive program responsible for the bulk of federally subsidized affordable rental production across the country and here in Rhode Island.

This would allow states to leverage underutilized federal funds to support a well-established housing production program. The state should also explore other Federal funding opportunities to utilize to fund housing development.

• Explore innovative models for leveraging private investment in housing development.

One new funding model that some states are exploring, including Massachusetts, is the Pay for Success model. While this approach is still relatively unproven, it offers the potential to leverage private investments in programs and services that will ultimately yield savings for the state and a return for those investors.

Permanent Supportive Housing for the homeless is an example of a program that has been proven to reduce state costs for emergency and institutional services as well as health care costs.

Likewise, the recently enacted ReBuilding Rhode Island Tax Credit is another program that is providing incentives for the private sector to invest in housing development.

• Strengthen and enhance preservation efforts currently under way.

Rhode Island Housing, the state’s Housing Finance Agency, recently launched a new preservation financing program through the federal Financing Bank, to provide up to $150 million in loans to help preserve an estimated 1,500 units in the next five years.

The traditional preservation method, using 4 percent federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits, is likely to preserve over 1,800 units in the next five years, utilizing an estimated $50 million in tax credit equity and approximately $90 million in permanent financing.

• Make it easier to build the homes that are needed.

The cost to develop housing in Rhode Island is very high - a cost that is passed on to buyers or renters occupying that housing through higher housing prices or rents. These high costs are driven, in part, by large-lot zoning requirements that limit density, thereby increasing land costs.

Zoning ordinances that prohibit or require special permits for the production of multifamily homes are also common. Inconsistent regulatory requirements and high property taxes can also discourage development.

Rhode Island has been among the last in the nation in new building permit activity for more than a decade. One reason is that it is very difficult for private developers to make a profit on the development of housing given the high cost of development and relatively low prices Rhode Islanders can afford to pay for housing compared to our neighbors in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Parts of Rhode Island also lack the water and sewer infrastructure needed to support higher density development.

Political implications
For sure, it’s difficult to translate a comprehensive housing report into a sound bite in the midst of a political campaign. Quoting the plan at length, as ConvergenceRI has done in this article, will probably fall on deaf ears of reporters and voters, unfortunately.

The problem with Gov. McKee claiming in the debate that there had never been a statewide housing plan is not the denial, but rather, the lack of follow-up by the political reporters covering the gubernatorial race.

Translated, who is going to hold the candidates accountable for what they say, if not the state’s political reporters?

The solid investigative work by WPRI and others, covering what gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown dubbed “Tidewater-gate,” which showed how the state’s investments in a new soccer stadium in Pawtucket may never be able to be paid pack, was an important story. [What was not surprising was the way that radio talk show host Dan Yorke, an ally of Gov. McKee, following the debate, called the reporting on the phrase of Tidewater-gate “shoddy.”]

Still, what has not yet been driven home by the “Tidewater-gate” story is the impact of the looming failure to invest in affordable housing development will have on the residents of the city of Pawtucket. The extra money to support the soccer stadium came from funds that were supposed to be targeted for development of affordable housing and retail, on the tie-breaking vote by Gov. McKee. The question is: Where will that money now come from?


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