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Mann Bourne, Research and Policy Director at
HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University, for ConvergenceRI.com
A deeper dive on the report on housing costs
It is a fact of life for many low-
and middle-income households that they need to make difficult choices when it
comes to paying for the kind of home they need versus their other obligations,
like health care, childcare, or even what type of groceries they buy. For those
with student debt or trying to save for retirement, the pressures are even
Of those items in a household budget, one of the most “impactful” is the cost
of housing. Not only can housing consume a third or more of a household budget,
the external factors of that home – regardless of whether it is a
single-family, condominium, or rental apartment – can have profound effects on
one’s life outcomes.
Is the home safe from health hazards, like lead paint and mold? Is it in a
walkable neighborhood or near jobs and transit? Are there good schools for
children to attend? All these issues, and more, make for the fact that
one’s zip code can be more predictive of a person’s life outcomes than their
With more than one in three Rhode Island households paying too much for
housing, by government standards, these are hard choices that are likely having
negative impacts across Rhode Island’s communities.
Cost-burdened by housing costs
According to the newly released 2019 Housing Fact Book, more than 140,000 Rhode
Island households – or 35 percent – are considered housing cost burdened,
spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. When Rhode Islanders’
incomes and housing costs are out of alignment, there is a chain reaction.
The total estimated dollar value of the housing cost burden across the state’s
households is nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars. Homeowners with
mortgages are paying an average of nearly $7,000 above the threshold; for
renters, that figure is just over $5,000.
“The amount of money that is collectively being overspent [$733,107,777] on
housing costs in Rhode Island, is astronomical,” said Brenda Clement, director
of HousingWorks RI. “This money, which could otherwise be spent supporting
local businesses, going towards education, or put into savings, is instead,
burdening Rhode Islanders. It is now, more critical than ever, for the state to
establish dedicated long-term funding to the development and preservation of
affordable homes, so that every Rhode Islander has a safe, healthy, and
affordable place to call home.”
HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University has been producing their annual
Fact Book since 2006 in order to highlight the issues around housing
affordability in the state and within every municipality. Since 2017, the
Housing Fact Book has also featured regional pages, which look at systems that
cross municipal boundaries.
This year, in keeping with the factors of cost that impact Rhode Island
households, the regional pages highlight the combined affordability of housing
with transportation costs, which the Center for Neighborhood Technology
produces as a “Housing and Transportation Affordability Index.”
The Center suggests that the combined cost of housing and transportation should
be no more than a total of 45 percent of a household’s budget. Given the
prevalence of households already paying more than 30 percent of their budget
for their home, it is nearly impossible for many Rhode Islanders to achieve
The housing churn
When a household is forced to contend with housing that is no longer affordable
to them, moving is a difficult option. Not only are there costs associated with
moving that only further the household’s financial burden, but residents are
often already located near resources they rely on, like family members or jobs.
There is a robust academic literature on the linkages between gentrification
and displacement, but without any conclusive data. Given Rhode Island’s size,
it is hard to escape rising prices and rents, regardless of where one goes.
In seeking solutions, there is a growth in the discussion of housing types that
may present cost savings due to smaller home sizes and new technologies. One
local example recently celebrated a groundbreaking in Olneyville, where ONE
Neighborhood Builders will construct five “small” homes, with an average net
floor space of 750 square feet. There are many more kinds of homes to be
explored, especially for the growing population of households of two persons or
less, including accessory dwelling units and modular homes.
These new types of homes, though, may face difficulties in local zoning
regulations, and sometimes in financing as well. As ideas are generated, it is
critical that all stakeholders be part of the discussion.
“Across the United States, more and more municipalities are recognizing the
value in thinking strategically about planning housing and transit near jobs,”
said Stephen Antoni, HousingWorks RI Advisory board chair and former president
of the Rhode Island Association of Realtors. “We in Rhode Island cannot afford
to overlook these connections to our state and local economies. With the state
currently involved in strategic planning for both housing and transit, the time
is now to cement these connections in order to ensure that accessibility is a
reality for all Rhode Islanders.”
Beyond the facts of affordability and regional transportation, the 2019 Housing
Fact Book provides insights into the funding and need for safe, healthy,
quality long-term affordable homes, across the state and within each
Annette Mann Bourne is the Research and Policy Director at
HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University.
The full book is now available on the HousingWorks RI website at