Mind and Body

Housing is health care; housing is a human right

The candidates offer their prescriptions to make more affordable, workforce and supportive housing a reality, and some sharp follow-up questions by the moderator

Photo by Richard Asinof

Brett Smiley, right, answers a question at the Aug. 4 Mayoral Forum at the Jim Gillen Teen Center, as candidates Gonzalo Cuervo, left, and Nirva LaFortune, center, listen.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 8/8/22
When it comes to building neighborhoods and communities, housing is health care, housing is a human right, and access to safe, affordable housing is the linchpin to creating a sustainable recovery community.
What is the best strategy to overcome NIMBYism for plans to create a harm reduction center in Providence? Does there need to be a moratorium on building luxury apartments in downtown Providence? Does the city need to renegotiate its arrangements with nonprofits such as college and hospitals in terms of property taxes? Are hospitals in Providence willing to invest in constructing worker housing for their nurses and service employees?
One of the forgotten stories in Providence and throughout the state is the critical role that community health centers play in providing primary care services to residents. Community health centers have been on the front lines during the COVID pandemic, and the integration of behavioral health and mental health services is crucial to supporting healthy neighborhoods. Similarly, health equity zones offer support for residents for problems that cannot be best addressed in a doctor’s office. The work of community development corporations such as ONE Neighborhood Builders in involving members of community in decision-making around needs exemplifies the kinds of best practices that can be replicated throughout the state.


PROVIDENCE – The mayoral forum on Aug. 4 sponsored by RUCARES and a collaboration of recovery groups took a sharp turn in the discussion about the lack of affordable housing in Providence, and the dire situation that many in recovery, who are sober, struggle to find a place to live. All three candidates agreed with the questioner, Katie Pariser, a peer recovery specialist at Sojourner House, that housing is health care, and that housing is a human right, and that safe affordable housing is critical for sustaining recovery.

KATIE PARISER: [peer recovery specialist at Sojourner House and Parent Support Network of RI.] Affordable housing is something we’ve heard about It is fundamental right and human right, and without it, there is no recovery right? I live in Ward 13 right now. However, three years ago, I was homeless because of addiction. And I lost everything.

And I went through all the steps, I went through detox, and all the things we talked about. I stayed in a recovery house. There are a lot of people who are in recovery houses right now and programs. I get it. I get it. And, then what?

And then I have to find an apartment. And I had to find an apartment a year into being sober. And where did I go? I was trying to get my kid back. And it was hard.

It took a long time. I’m lucky I had friends.But there are so many people who don’t.
There are awful stories about domestic violence and substance abuse. And they are sober and have nowhere to go. And some of my really good friends are still in recovery houses and there is nowhere to go. Every day I fight for people to find housing.

And they can’t find apartments. They can’t find permanent supportive housing. They can’t find a place of living. It’s every age group, every addict, every sob er person who has started their life over who is now in recovery and has hope because they live with a family, in a program, or a recovery house, ready to start their life again.

So, access to housing as health care. The lack of safe and affordable housing is primary barrier to sustaining recovery.

QUESTION: How are you going to ensure that a range of housing service, including recovery housing, will be constructed, or available?

SMILEY: Thank you for sharing your story. And, housing is health care. Housing is health care and housing is critical to sustaining recovery. With respect to recovery housing, and then, the broader housing question: We need to work through partners, our great partners like Amos House, who want build more recovery housing, or renovate and run recovery housing. They need funding, and thy need city support to do so. There is no excuse for the city trying to charge permit fees, giving them a hard time on inspections, all the other things that we nickel-and-dime everybody to do, that we can help ease the burden and help find property, particularly vacant, abandoned property that is throughout our city, to make homes for those finding recovery.

There are community partners who are willing to partner with this; they need the land, they need the regulatory burdens and hurdles lifted; I was a part of passing the certification for recovery housing, so that those operators who receive Medicaid funding can help better receive that Medicaid funding. But there is simply not enough recovery housing in our community.

More broadly, there is not affordable housing in our community. And that means affordable housing at every price point. We need more low-income housing, and we need workforce housing. And, in order to get there, we’re going to need to do all of the above.

We need to build more, we need to make it easier and less expensive to build, and we to build homes that families can live in. Not just apartments for rich college kids, because that’s the only thing that’s being built right now.

We need to build one, two and three bedroom homes that people can actually live in with their families in, and not displace residents. And, we have the ability to do that through incentives and through zoning. And, we want to get people to the place where they can actually own a home. It is still the way through which most people build wealth for themselves, for their retirement, to have something to leave their child, and actually build generational wealth. Which is what we want people to do. And that’s through more programs like First Time Homebuyers Assistance. Downpayment assistance. Subsidized mortgage rates, particularly in the limited environment we are in right now.

Moderator: Times up

SMILEY: I served on the RI Housing board. I know where a lot of these programs and dollars exist.

CUERVO: There’s an opportunity for the city to play a pivotal role in the building of more, supportive housing as well as market housing.

And, the city has all the tools. We have the Providence Redevelopment agency, which controls a lot of money. We have the Providence Housing Authority. We have the planning department, which controls millions of dollars in community development block grants money. And, we have the power of zoning, that we can change, that we have to change. And all of these programs are at our disposal.

And now, we have the state, which has set aside millions of dollars for the development of new housing. What we need is the intentional [power]. To say, “What are we going to do to build affordable housing, workforce housing, and also, to support the agencies that know how to develop, and know how to successfully build and operate supportive housing.

The tolls are there. Actually, for the first time, in a very long time, the city and the state have a near complete toolkit to make this a reality. Different elements of this have been fought for years and years and years, for a lot of different reasons. Part of it was state funding, part of it was political. Part of it was simply profit. We are in an excellent spot. We just need to pull the trigger and move forward.

LaFORTUNE: Thank you, Katie, for sharing your story. Not only is housing health care, housing is a human right. Everyone should have access to affordable housing, whether you have zero income, low income, or moderate income. People should have access to safe, clean, sustainable homes.

Both Brett and Gonzalvo have talked about zoning policies as well as looking at other funds and resources. As a city council person, we created actually a trust fund to allocate funding, revenue generated, into this trust fund to build affordable housing.

I passed legislation to create a task force to allocate the other funds, the federal dollars that came in from the American Rescue Plan Act funds, and one of the top priorities was housing. And also to invest in housing that would provide wrap-around services to individuals, which is critical.

And so, as Mayor, that will be a priority. In fact, when I worked on the North Main Street project, which I have been working on since 2019, and we finally put out the study last week, part of that plan is to create housing opportunities for people to be able to rent housing, to create mixed use development, where people can work, and live, as well as a pathways to home ownership, but also create a mobile affordable city, where people can get around.

The approach has to be comprehensive. It is not just about housing, but also creating pathways for people to get connected to jobs. To be able to get connected to services. And, you also need to start with the schools. I passed legislation to increase social and emotional support in our schools, for our kids, and part of de-stigmatizing mental and behavioral health is also ensuring that our youth have access to services. And, families can also access these services in the school.

BOLOGNA: It takes a lot of time for affordable housing. There is a lot of regulations. A lot of money goes to the banks. How would you work with that? On average, I’m hearing that for affordable housing, it takes a minimum of five years. You’ve got a kid out of high school at that point. So, Brett, you were talking about pulling back some regulations to get the funding to go through quicker. Would you actually make that happen?

SMILEY: One of the primary drivers of the development time is that our community development corporations, our nonprofit low-income housing companies, in order to make the project work, and they are masters at it, God bless them, but they braid together 16 different funding sources to make the project [happen].

A lot of that delay is resource driven, not actually regulation driven. In order to qualify for this tax credit or that tax credit, in order to make the program work. And so, there is a way to accelerate that, through short-term loans, bridge financing, helping them get started, even though the credits haven’t been allocated. And, we can do that in a way that that money gets repaid and it can get reinvested into the next one and then into the next one.

BOLOGNA: And it also can save money, too, because you are not paying banks enormous fees.

SMILEY: It has the potential to save them money. And suddenly, it’s great. Suddenly, everybody in Rhode Island, policymakers in Rhode Island, seem to have a vision [focused] of housing. There are state resources available today that have not been available in a very long time.

The General Assembly allocated quite a bit of funding to Rhode Island Housing. The city has an affordable housing trust fund. We have an opportunity to access those funds here in Providence. Back to Michelle’s question around NIMBYism. There are communities in Rhode Island that fight the construction of affordable housing. And, that’s something for them to deal with. Honestly, I want to access as much of those dollars in Providence as possible.

For the first time, there are so many topics. A lot of it is because of these one-time federal funds. We have money available. That has always been the great limiting factor.

There are resources available and there are ways to sell the process.

CUERVO: Government is fantastic at expediting things when they want to [work with] special interests.

We have a perfect example. Councilwoman La Fortune spoke about the affordable housing trust. It was created two years ago. We the taxpayers of Providence have [supported it] with $24 million. At the time, the city council heralded this as an opportunity to build and leverage 1,400 affordable housing units.

Earlier this year, when the city and stat were figuring out how to make the Superman building happen, miraculously, miraculously, the city, overnight, decided it was a great idea to take $10 million of those $24 million and assign them to the Superman development – nearly half of the affordable housing trust. So, that’s just a simple example of how we need to get our priorities in order. Because when government wants something to happen, they make it happen.

LaFORTUNE: There should be a short-term and long-term approach. With the short-term approach, we should be maximizing the resources between the city and the state. And also, sending those resources directly to programs like Amos House and Sojourner House, who are already building housing. Part of the issue is also finding a parcel to build a house, or looking at some of our dilapidated buildings and rehab them into affordable housing opportunities or recovery housing opportunities as well. So that would be a priority of mine to using those funds.

And yes, the city does have a way, particularly through its leadership to prioritize certain projects over others, I would look to that Superman building ordinance tcoming o City Council for us to actually vote on it.

What they did promise was 20 percent of the units would be allocated to affordable housing. Right now, the average median income for those units to me is too high. I think it’s 80 percent and higher. It should be lower. And that is something I have committed to fighting for. But, again, we need to build housing. We need to take the short-term approach, working with our city and state legislators and working with entities that already doing the work. But also, looking at our comprehensive zoning plan, to look at land usage, our zoning policies.

And, to revamp them so we can cut out the barriers from building more affordable housing. And, when we are building housing, to also think about building communities, and transit oriented housing, so people again have access to transit so they can get to their job, and to take their kids to daycare.

And another thing. As a mom, I think when we are thinking about housing, particularly for those who are going through their recovery journey, it’s important to also provides services like affordable child care, for school as well as for job training opportunities as well. So, I will take a comprehensive approach, and I will look at the short term and long term solutions.

Editor's Note: Next week, in PART Three, the candidates discuss the need for the Mayor to advocate for changes in the way that business is conducted around housing policy and tax stabilization agreements.


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