Innovation Ecosystem

Housing is the key

The latest Housing Fact Book reveals how riven Rhode Island is by huge gaps in affordability and equity

Photo courtesy of Brenda Clement

Brenda Clement, director of HousingWorks RI, holding a copy of the 2022 Housing Fact Book, released on Friday, Oxt. 28.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 10/31/22
Critical affordable housing shortages continue to plague Rhode Island, as documented by the 2022 Housing Fact Book released last week by HousingWorks RI. Despite new monies being channeled into housing development, the crisis only seems to be exacerbated by market pressures, including rising mortgage interest rates.
If housing is “where jobs go to sleep at night,” how can efforts to create jobs in Rhode Island be paired with worker housing being built by companies, such as hospitals and health systems? How can the work of CODAC with its mobile outreach van to serve patients with substance use disorders be expanded? What lessons can be learned form the innovations developed by community groups such as ONE Neighborhood Builders to create a free WiFi network serving its local community? What is the status of the state’s planned re-procurement process for Managed Care Organizations serving Medicaid members in Rhode Island?
When ConvergenceRI attended the ceremonial groundbreaking for the new state public health lab that will be ensconced as part of a larger, commercial real estate project focused on the life sciences, it was with some trepidation. The latest edition of ConvergenceRI had featured a two-part story that documented a decade’s detailed reporting on previous efforts to jumpstart a biotech/life sciences industry sector in Rhode Island, including links to more than 40 articles. How would powerful leaders within state government and the corporate world respond to being questioned, given their strong advocacy to launch a biotech/life sciences hub in Rhode Island, based upon what Massachusetts had done with its $1 billion life sciences initiative under former Gov. Deval Parick.
Call it a simple twist of fate, but ConvergenceRI had been worked closely on the development of that initiative, and could talk at length about what Massachusetts had done – and why it proved to be successful. What was lacking, however, was the place to have an actual dialogue about Rhode Island’s latest plans. Indeed, somehow ConvergenceRI had been “excluded” from the media briefing about the study championing that effort.
In his song, “Dear Landlord,” Bob Dylan has a lyric that goes, “I won’t underestimate you if you don’t underestimate me.” What seems to be missing – whether we are talking about housing, about public health, or about health care – is the ability – the willingness – to listen to what others are saying, rather than trying to talk over them.

PROVIDENCE – “Housing is health care,” said Carolyn Belisle of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island,” as part of a tweet saluting the health insurer's teams of volunteers for helping seven families build their own homes.

United Way of Rhode Island’s Courtney Nicolato told reporter Ian Donnis from The Public Radio’s that when she speaks with corporate CEOs, nonprofit leaders, community advocates and elected officials on what they believe is the most important issues facing our state and their respective pain points, “They all say the same thing: Housing.”

Nicolato continued: Our corporate CEOs cannot find housing for their workforce, which prohibits them from growing in Rhode Island. And our community leaders are trying to find a safe place for many to rest their head at night, to no avail.”

She continued: “We must look at housing not as a specific issue for one group of Rhode Islanders, but for all of us.”

The release of the 2022 Housing Fact Book by HousingWorks RI on Friday, Oct. 28, revealed a state that is being riven apart by a housing crisis.

• Rhode Island’s median single-family-home price in 2021 – $365,000 – reflected a one-year increase of 14 percent; the highest single year increase since the last spike in prices during 2001-2004.

• With the cost of housing increasing, it is no surprise that the rate of cost burden in Rhode Island remains a challenge for many.

• Over 139,000 Rhode Island households are cost burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

• Among renter households, across most racial/ethnicity categories, more than one in five pays over 50 percent of their income to housing costs, making them housing insecure.

• When a Rhode Islander is cost burdened, it not only prevents households from circulating money back into their local economies, it can also hinder the opportunity to save, or obtain other essentials such as healthcare, transportation, and child care.

“We must continue to work together across the state with all our municipalities to implement the framework that will enable a diversity of housing options for our residents–through infrastructure and revised land use regulations,” said Brenda Clement, Director of HousingWorks RI.

“We simply need more production of all kinds of homes, and to preserve and upgrade the stock we have,” Clement said. “Funding is a big part of that, and we have taken important steps toward funding housing with the latest $65M housing bond, and our new permanent funding stream in the state’s budget.”

The problem, Clement explained, is that the state only funds approximately a quarter of Rhode Island’s housing programs “Our state still has a long way to go in order to do its part in combating the housing affordability crisis,” she said.

The housing crunch for those who are “unhoused”
The increasing number of those Rhode Islanders who are “unhoused,” with winter quickly approaching, has spurred community advocates to engage with Gov. Dan McKee and his hosuing “czar,” Josh Saal, to spend additional resources.

Ina three-part story published earlier this month, ConvergenceRI detailed the behind-the-scenes conversation between community advocates and the Governor. [See links below to ConvergenceRI stories, “Crossing the wealth chasm in Rhode Island,” “Navigating through the fog of wealth,” and “Finding common ground to create shelter for the unhoused.”]

To find out what the current status was with the plans to invest additional state resources in creating shelter for the ‘unhoused” in Rhode Island, ConvergenceRI reached out to Saal, who sent along these responses, prepared in partnership with Chris Raia from Duffy & Shanley.

ConvergenceRI: I wanted to follow up to see if there was any new “news” forthcoming about plans by the state to invest in the creation of new “shelter” spaces for those Rhode Islanders who are “unhoused” in advance of the colder weather conditions and Thanksgiving?
SAAL and RAIA: Earlier this month, we awarded $3.5 million in funding to support the creation of 231 new shelter beds across the state. The six organizations who were awarded funding are working on ensuring those new beds are operational this winter. Between those 231 new beds and the 43 new beds we funded this summer, we anticipate Rhode Island’s statewide capacity to include roughly 1,000 emergency beds.

We are confident we have the capacity to meet the increased need that typically comes with the winter months, but it is important to note that the effort to address homelessness extends far beyond adding shelter. Our office remains in consistent communication with homelessness service providers and municipal leaders across the state to activate street outreach teams and proactively engage individuals at risk of experiencing homelessness to inform them of available services and supports.

Outside of shelter expansion, I would also highlight that the Department of Housing just this week released a $9.5 million RFP to expand legal services and housing stability resources for individuals and families in need. This program – which will help households at risk of homelessness secure legal services such as eviction prevention, fair housing counseling and more – is one example of our office’s comprehensive efforts to address homelessness while immediately making investments in critical, short-term efforts such as shelter expansion.

ConvergenceRI: Any response to the release of the Housing Fact Book this morning?
SAAL and RAIA: First, I want to applaud the team at HousingWorksRI for the work they do year after year to compile and publish this thorough, data-driven, comprehensive report. This is difficult, time-consuming, and critically important work – and they do it well.

This year’s Housing Fact Book shines a spotlight on the fact that housing is among the most pressing issues in the state right now. We know that we have an aging housing stock and that far too many Rhode Islanders at every income level are struggling to find, secure and maintain the housing they need.

That’s why Gov. McKee signed a budget that included a generational, $250 million investment in housing – and it’s why our office is acting with urgency to invest those funds as part of a long-term strategy to fix, build and stabilize the state’s housing future.

ConvergenceRI: Longer term, would you be willing to do a one-on-one interview with me in the next two weeks? Happy to do it via phone, Zoom, or in-person, whatever works best for you.
SAAL and RAIA: Will need to get back to you on this.

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