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Homes Rhode Island, a coalition of
housing advocates, has developed a number of strategic asks for the Governor
and the R.I. General Assembly to pursue
By Richard Asinof, ConvergenceRI.com
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 reasons behind the crisis are not a mystery:
• The high cost of housing, with one-third of households
paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing costs in 2019,
reflective of a decade of wage stagnation. Most middle-class families have been
priced out of buying a home in the current booming real estate market.
• The lack of new housing starts to keep up with demand; in
2018, only 1,294 residential building permits were issued statewide, with
three-quarters being issued for single-family homes. Based on projections of
Rhode Island’s future housing needs, the state should be building closer to
3,000 homes per year, with a greater emphasis of multi-family living.
• The lack of a dedicated stream of state government investments
to support the production of affordable homes in Rhode Island, compared to our
New England neighbors. Per capita, Rhode Island spends $21.90, compared to
$100.88 spent by Massachusetts, $95.78 spent by Connecticut, and $77.88 spent
• An aging housing stock that is expensive to operate,
maintain and keep safe, which is particularly burdensome to the urban core
cities of Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls and Woonsocket.
Evidence of the symptoms of the housing crisis can be found and documented
across Rhode Island: a rising homeless population, with children making up 17
percent of the people using emergency shelters; an increase in evictions; a
continual churn of families forced to find affordable housing, playing havoc
with education and health outcomes; and an increase in the number of families
and children living in poverty in Rhode Island, according to the latest Census
The question remains: what steps need to be taken to solve the crisis? It would
be great, as Brenda Clement, the director of HousingWorks RI, explained, using
the prop of a red easy button from Staples, as moderator of a panel discussion
entitled “Housing Programs in Rhode Island,” at the first Homes Rhode Island
annual summit held on Wednesday, Dec. 11, at Rhode Island College, if all that
needed to be done was to press such a button and new housing developments would
The reality, however, is that many developments can take as long as 15 years to
complete, according to Joe Garlick, director of Neighborworks Blackstone River
What is needed is a comprehensive, strategic approach, something that Homes
Rhode Island is pushing forward.
The stage is set
The Homes Rhode Island summit, an all-day confab, attracted a full house of
participants, despite the snowy weather, and with it, building a coalition of
housing advocates with a committed agenda and strategy, as carefully laid out
in a 30-page booklet.
[The Homes Rhode Island coalition, two years in the making, is supported by
HousingWorks RI, the Housing Network of RI, United Way of Rhode Island, the
Rhode Island Foundation, numerous community development corporations and
housing authority partners, among others.]
The well-orchestrated event connected the dots between housing and health care,
housing and education, and housing and the struggle for civil rights, seeking
to build a public narrative for social change and civic engagement.
“The Homes Rhode Island coalition is a group of housing advocates that have
come together to address the issue in a unified way, and the session left
everyone feeling a renewed sense of hope,” said Jeanne Cola, executive director
of Local Initiatives Support Corporation. “We understand that there are real
people involved who are in desperate need. This session, and the [earlier]
session that was done by CommerceRI and the Governor, has left everyone feeling
positive that we will be addressing the issue and making real change in the
coming months and years.”
Your zip code is more important than your genetic code
In October, the release of the first annual Rhode Island Life Index, created by
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island, in partnership with the School of
Public Health at Brown University, provided a boost for the work of Homes Rhode
Island, with its finding that housing emerged as the key factor in analyzing
health care needs around the social determinants of health. See link below to
ConvergenceRI story, “Taking the pulse of Rhode Island life.”]
In response, Blue Cross announced last week $200,000 in grants through its Blue
Angel Community Health grants, including:
• $50,000 to the Housing Network of Rhode Island to support
communications and visibility of the Homes Rhode Island campaign.
• $50,000 to Crossroads Rhode Island to support the Health
• $50,000 to HousingWorks RI to support expanded research on
senior specific housing issues in Rhode Island.
• $30,000 to the Village Common initiative to accelerate the
development of new villages.
• $20,000 to Family Service of Rhode Island to support the
Healthy Kids Rhode Island initiative.
In making the grants, Blue Cross said it did not anticipate identifying future
kinds of investments in housing initiatives, such as efforts to build
affordable housing near hospitals as a way to reduce health costs.
“We recognize that we are not housing experts and will be looking to the many
affordable housing advocates in Rhode Island, who are truly the experts in this
field, to explore any and all ideas,” said Carolyn Belisle, the managing
director of Community Relations at the health insurer.
The release of the Rhode Island Life Index, coupled with the release of the
2019 Housing Fact Book, with its daunting analysis, created the impetus for
Gov. Gina Raimondo and CommerceRI to convene a housing forum on Nov. 14. [See
link below to ConvergenceRI story, “1 in 3 RI households are facing housing
What has not yet been reported is that there is a lively conversation, still
private, occurring between the leaders of Homes Rhode Island and the Governor,
to try to develop a consensus on the best strategies moving forward, with an
eye on next year’s budget.
The focus of the “asks” by Homes Rhode Island coalition emphasize the need for
a dedicated funding stream for state investments to build and preserve safe,
healthy and affordable homes. These include:
• A permanent funding source of at least $8 million to support
the production and operation of rental housing serving households at or below
80 percent of the Area Median Income, or AMI.
These funds would serve as gap financing for the construction of new units and
would make available project-based rental assistance to more appropriately
serve extremely low-income households.
• A permanent funding source of at least $4 million to support
the preservation of expiring affordable units. This would ensure a source for
much needed capital improvements and reinvestment to renew the term of
affordability on developments that are at risk of expiration.
• A $25 million bond referendum in 2020 to refund the Building
Homes Rhode Island program, which is administered by the Housing Resources
Commission. These funds would be available over a two-year period.
In addition, the Homes Rhode Island coalition is also pursuing low- or no-cost
legislative strategies that would have broad impact on housing. These include:
• Source of income protection for Rhode Islanders. This
would reduce barriers to accessing existing units for Rhode Island renters.
State funding is needed for outreach, education and enforcement to ensure
successful implementation of this strategy.
• Eviction proceeding protection for Rhode Islanders,
including the sealing of court files in eviction cases in which the case is
dismissed or the tenant is not found at fault. Sealing eviction records would
reduce barriers to accessing existing units.
• Language correction to the Real Estate Conveyance tax. At
present, affordable housing is negatively impacted be being taxed on
transactions that do not constitute real estate transfers. The language
correction would improve the effectiveness of our previous and current
investments, as well as the financial stability of housing developments with
limited rental income.
“Shelter is one of life’s most basic necessities, and is the cornerstone of the
quality of life in any state or nation,” said Melina Lodge, executive director
of Housing Network of RI. “Thoughtful and deliberate investment in housing can
support economic and workforce development, health equity, strong families and
communities, and reduces housing insecurity and homelessness.”
Lodge continued: “Homes Rhode Island believes that a comprehensive housing
package which prioritizes investments in the construction and preservation of
affordable homes while including strategies that remove barriers to accessing
safe and healthy homes within our current stock, is a crucial foundational
element to impacting the housing crisis.”
More than housing
A recent blog post by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation featured the work of
the Sankofa Initiative by West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation, putting
the focus on community-based strategies to build health equity.
“Many housing projects focus exclusively on putting a roof over peoples’ heads.
We sought a broader approach that integrates cultural values into kitchens,
homes and neighborhoods,” the blog began, written by Sharon Conard-Wells and
Angela Ankoma, who received the Foundation’s 2018 Health Equity Award.
The literal definition of “Sankofa” from the Akan tribe in Ghana means “go back
and fetch it,” the blog continued. “While the future brings new learning,
knowledge from the past must not be forgotten.”
This principle, Ankoma and Conard-Wells wrote, “guided our efforts to transform
10 formerly blighted lots into a vibrant community of 50 modern “green”
apartments in Providence, Rhode Island’s diverse West End community. The $13.5
million development is connected to 30,000 square feet of community garden
space. Single fathers come with sons, pastors come with children and people sit
under the garden’s pergola, which was built by local youth volunteers. It is,
as one article put it, a beehive of activity.” [See link below to ConvergenceRI
story, “Sankofa World Market helps West End community grow some roots.”].
Read full story, here: http://newsletter.convergenceri.com/stories/the-path-to-opportunity-begins-at-the-front-door-of-your-home,5420