Too many will be left out in the cold – Richard Asinof

by Richard Asinof, – contributing writer

An in-depth interview with Brenda Clement, executive director of HousingWorks RI, detailing the hard realities showcased in the 2021 Housing Fact Book

Make no mistake, the coldness of winter is fast approaching. All color is temperature; and the changing hues in the skies above Rhode Island, with their darkening blues offering a forecast of falling temperatures, were captured by Mike Cohea’s brilliant photograph last week of the October full moon, the hunter’s moon rising over the Beavertail Lighthouse in Jamestown.

And, appropriately, the dire lack of safe, affordable housing in Rhode Island was front-and-center in the glare of the news spotlight.

• An encampment of people without homes on Wilson Street in Providence was partially bulldozed last week, after the Providence police had handed out eviction notices to residents living there, with evictions slated for Nov. 1. But, not waiting for any eviction hearings to take place, the bulldozing of the lot took place on Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 20, apparently on orders from the company, Knight & Swan LLC, which owns the lot. The bulldozers had been dispatched without any notification being given to city police or to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, according to reporting by Steve Ahlquist from Uprise RI.

• Not one but two great stories by Rhode Island-based Boston Globe reporter Alexa Gagosz told the heartbreaking truths of mothers attempting to survive the lack of affordable housing and seek shelter for themselves and their children – one working mom was evicted because her landlord sold the home where she was living, another fled an abusive partner. Generous responses by readers have raised thousands of dollars through GoFundMe contributions, but the underlying structural problems around affordable housing remain – rents are too high, vacancy is extremely low, most of the existing housing stock is old and in need of repair, and wages for essential workers are too low, limiting options. How can a poor person stand such times and live?

• Help is on the way, but exactly when the cavalry will arrive is anyone’s guess. Two “big” reports, one issued by the Rhode Island Foundation, “Make It Happen: Investing for Rhode Island’s Future,” and one issued by Gov. Dan McKee, a working paper entitled “Rhode Island 2030,” put affordable housing at the top of the list for recommendations for future investments – as well as a top priority for short-term remedies. The question is: How long will it take the R.I. General Assembly take action on the unspent $1.1 billion in federal American Rescue Plan dollars? Before winter sets in?

Both Gov. McKee and Rhode Island Foundation President and CEO Neil Steinberg, while agreeing that affordable housing is a critical investment needed to sustain Rhode Island’s future prosperity, remain skeptics.

Gov. McKee, in an interview with ConvergenceRI on the morning when the Rhode Island 2030 was announced, 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.”

Steinberg, for his part, when he talked about the “Make It Happen,” voiced concern whether there was “too much money” or “too little money” when it came to the current federal largesse, expressing worries about the poor track record on previous investments.

• Perhaps the most important document produced in the last two weeks was the 2021 Housing Fact Book, compiled by HousingWorksRI, with exacting, detailed, thorough analysis of the current state of housing in Rhode Island, under the direction of Brenda Clement, the nonprofit’s executive director.

The findings of the latest iteration of the Housing Fact Book should surprise no one:

• The age of the state’s housing stock is a primary driver of chronic health risks. Nearly three-quarters of all houses and apartment buildings were built before 1980, predating safety regulations for contaminants such as lead and asbestos. As a result, thousands of households have been put at risk – particularly the youngest and oldest residents of the state.

• How big is that risk? Of the 66,588 children aged five and under in Rhode Island, 73 percent live in units built before 1980. And, of those aged 65 and older, 23 percent [40,243] have a disability and live in homes constructed before 1980.

• Of the more than 11,000 jobs represented by the top 20 “high growth occupations,” 72 percent of them do not pay enough to be able to affordably rent the 2020 average two-bedroom apartment in Rhode Island.

“With the state’s per capita investment – at $18.34 in 2020 – continuously remaining the lowest per capita state investment in New England, the time for government leaders to produce, preserve and sustain Rhode Island’s housing inventory is long overdue,” said Brenda Clement, the executive director of HousingWorks RI.

The high cost burden
The 2021 Housing Fact Book identified the ever-widening maw between what is affordable and what is cost-burdened.

• More than 140,000 Rhode Island households, nearly 35 percent, are housing cost burdened. Cost-burdened households pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing, leaving less money available for households to spend in support of our local economies.

Translated, you can’t count on residents to support local businesses if they cannot pay the rent or mortgage. The best-laid plans to support small businesses in the state will fall apart without access to safe, affordable housing.

• In 2020, there are no municipalities where someone earning the median household income of $67,167 could affordably buy a home, for the first time since HousingWorks RI began to measure affordability against the state’s median household income.

• For Rhode Island households earning $50,000 or less, they could affordably rent places to live in only two municipalities – Burrillville and Woonsocket. Further, households earning the median renter income of $36,078 could affordably rent the average two-bedroom apartment in only one Rhode Island municipality – Burrillville.

And, not surprisingly, the rate of Black and Latino homeowners’ cost burdens is 14 percent higher than that of White homeowners.

• Housing instability and homelessness remain a major concern in Rhode Island, with the number of unsheltered adults increasing 68 percent from 2020 to 2021.

Speaking words of wisdom
One day in advance of the official release of the 2021 Housing Fact Book, ConvergenceRI interviewed Clement by phone, in an in-depth conversation about all of the issues surrounding housing in Rhode Island.

The interview began with a bright ray of hope offered by Clement, who advised ConvergenceRI to “never say never” when it comes to reporting – which she said was “the motto of all advocates” facing entrenched resistance.

Clement also urged ConvergenceRI to “just keep holding people’s feet to the fire” when reporting on hard topics. “I always appreciate your willingness to do so,” she said. “Just keep asking: How come? And, why not?” adding: “So, you want to talk about my favorite subject, housing, again.”

ConvergenceRI: Yes. There are so many things happening on the housing front, and your new 2021 Fact Book, I think, makes it very clear that we are in an urgent crisis. I do not think that there has been enough money invested by the state so far to commit to what needs to get done. Is that an accurate statement?
CLEMENT: Again, as we have noted, in Rhode Island, for many, many years, we have not been, for a long, long time, been putting enough money into housing.

And so yes, we are way behind, and we need a number of back payments in order to start to catch up and make sure that we can provide housing – safe and affordable housing for everybody who needs it.

As part of a coalition – a group that we are involved in, Homes RI, we’ve asked for a big ask [$500 million] as a share of the federal money. And, we have been working hard with our Congressional delegation to make sure that housing is included in the Infrastructure bill [now pending in Congress].

So, more money and resources is definitely needed, but we also need changes in policies and procedures – and taking a look back at land needs and zoning and all of those things that are also going to be needed to solve this problem.

ConvergenceRI: Let’s start with a definition of what “affordable” is. I feel like that is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot. I am just not sure that there is any housing in Rhode Island that is truly affordable anymore.
CLEMENT: As you know, the definition of affordability is really around paying no more than a third of your gross income toward your housing expenses, whether that is rental or mortgage payments.

So, regardless of your income level, you need housing that is affordable to you – even if you are at a higher-income level.

Obviously, even when you are at a higher-income level, you have less affordable housing [options] available to you. Your choices are: you may not be able to put money into savings, or you may not be able to buy a second car, or you may not be able to go on a vacation.

As you go lower down the income spectrum, though, as you know, the choices become much more dire. You often must choose between rent and food, or rent and medication, or rent and the heat.

And, we know that many, many Rhode Islanders continue to cost-burdened, spending more than a third of income on their housing expenses.

[Editor’s Note: ConvergenceRI had also asked Gov. Dan McKee to define what “affordable” meant. See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “When patience and persistence pay off.”]

ConverenceRI: So, in terms of policies needed to change that, what needs to happen?
CLEMENT: As you already mentioned, we need to gas up the engine. And spend as much money as possible acquiring properties, rehabbing existing properties, and building new buildings and construction.

Some of the work around land use – the [special legislative commission to study the Rhode Island Low and Moderate Income Housing Act] is reconvening, and it is starting to look at how we can fine-tune those laws or add more teeth in some cases to the those laws,

I think there are great opportunities as we’ve seen with changes – changes that were happening even before COVID – in shifting the use of commercial space and retail space, so we can repurpose and reuse some of that space – and still save on local tax rolls – that provides more housing opportunities in those areas.

Both communities and the local government are critical partners in this work, so providing more capacity to them is always what I hope we spend some of our federal dollars on.

ConvergenceRI: One of the things that came across my transom recently was that the state was trying to sell nine group homes; but it is unclear why they were being put on the market. A social service agency director raised the idea that instead of selling those group homes, they could be made into temporary residences for people who are without homes, using the existing group homes to create transitional housing.
CLEMENT: That is a great idea. We were also aware [of that situation], and along with other advocates, we have been advocating with the governor’s office.

[Editor’s Note: ConvergenceRI raised the issue with Gov. McKee at the news conference held on Tuesday, Oct. 19. At first, Gov. McKee said he was unaware of the specifics, but then indicated that the group homes were being sold because of their apparent state of disrepair. Stay tuned].

I also think that legislatively, we should move forward with a right-of-first-refusal legislation, so that when other opportunities like this and for other state properties come up, we may be able to have nonprofits or cities and towns be able to take a first look at those properties.

Those group homes, as a result, if they get sold, some communities are going to lose some units under the state’s 10 percent goal [for affordable housing], as I understand it.

I think we need to look at any and all places to create units, because, we have both a short-term and a longer-term problem, as you know. We’ve got examples of people living outside, in shelters, and on waiting list for shelters at this point.

Creating as many units as possible, as quickly as possible, is something we need to focus our energy on.

ConvergenceRI: A group of advocates around preventing childhood lead poisoning made their own ask for $100 million of the unspent $1.1 billion in federal ARPA monies, in order to replace all the lead pipes for drinking water in Providence. Do you see that as competition for the same dollars, or as an add-on to the Homes RI $500 million for housing request?
CLEMENT: I see it as an add-on. Again, we know the infrastructure issues in communities are critical. It is not just lead exposure, it is the age and condition of the overall infrastructure in many of the communities is at a critical juncture as well.

So, yes to all of those things, looking at ways to better leverage some of the municipal infrastructure dollars that may be coming to the state, too, if Congress ever comes to an agreement on the [Infrastructure bill], there may be some opportunities there as well.

We hear it all the time, particularly from communities outside of Providence, that the strain on their infrastructure, their water and sewer costs, are one of the things that prevent them from building and developing more housing. Infrastructure goes hand in hand with affordable housing development.

ConvergenceRI: Tomorrow, I am scheduled to do an interview with the Governor. I couldn’t get one for six years with former Gov. Gina Raimondo…
CLEMENT: …He is hopefully joining us for the 2021 Housing Fact Book kickoff, but he will only be on very briefly.

ConvergencRI: What questions would you want to ask the governor, if you could?
CLEMENT: Again, we would love to hear his plans to invest in affordable housing. In some of his initial recommendations, he has added housing to the mix of things we should invest in.

I would thank him for that down payment, but then I would want to know what’s next, and how much of the total package does he see and envision into housing.

It has been great to have Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos focusing on these issues. We would love to hear more about his thoughts about what structures do we need in state government for housing and housing programs, moving forward.

ConvergenceRI: From an advocacy point of view, the recovery community recently stood up to BHDDH administrators over proposed $2 million in cuts in funding to recovery programs, walking out in unison at a Task Force meeting, and they succeeded in getting the cuts rescinded. It was a much different approach than just advocating.
For the most part, the recovery community advocates had been quiescent, I’m not sure if that is the right word, choosing to go along to get along.
In light of their success, I was wondering: Is it time for the tactics of housing advocacy groups to change?
CLEMENT: Who knows? We are not the lead advocacy organization. Obviously, our role in housing is on the research and policy side, as you know.

The housing advocacy community has had numerous actions over the last 15, 20 years in the housing space, including a walk across the state, from Westerly to Providence, to raise awareness about housing needs. And, back when housing was cut out of the state budget, when the Neighborhood Opportunities Program was cut, there were a number of clergy who were arrested at the State House in protest.

There are number of folks within the advocacy community that are getting [fed up] and saying, enough is enough, winter is coming very quickly, and so we need to address the immediate issues, and then finally make the long-term investments into housing that we need.

We’ll see. At this point, we are probably more encouraged than we have been for a lo0ng time, because we have not only the interest and the potential for large budgets of money to be spent that we may be able to use to address these issue.

Housing advocates have shown that they are not afraid to take a stand when they need to.

ConvergenceRI: One of my favorite slogans, as you know, is that “The path to economic prosperity begins at your front door,” and also, the line from Nicholas Retsinas, “Housing is where jobs go to sleep at night.”
How do those messages get driven home, as we enter a competitive gubernatorial race in 2022? What are the messages that you would like to hear from the candidates around housing?
CLEMENT: A couple of things, One, particularly, around jobs and economic growth, In the 2021 Housing Fact Book, we try to show the connectedness between housing and health outcomes, and economic growth and education attainment.

If you look at Page 14 of the Fact Book, we list the gaps between housing costs and monthly income for the projected Rhode Island growth occupations from 2018-2028.

And so, for the fastest growing projected jobs in our state, almost all of them are paying well below what people can afford for the average rent. I would also point out that many of these categories or types of workers were essential workers and critical workers for us during the height of the pandemic – waiters, nurses assistants, nurses, carpenters, construction laborers, personal care and home health aides, janitors and cleaners. All of those people are in the fastest-growth projections of job categories in the state, but they are also people who will be cost-burdened, who will not be able to affordability rent or own property anywhere in the state.

ConvergenceRI: What comes first? Increase in wages as a way to offset higher rents, or…
CLEMENT: …I think it is both; it is not an either/or, right? It is a both/and. We need to try to work to increase some of the base wages of those people fairly quickly. But we also need to find ways to put them on career paths through job-training to help them move onto higher wage jobs.

I think we also need to look at ways to tie in opportunities for housing supports for those workers. For instance, as we think about recreating and rethinking nursing homes, and in home health areas, can we think about how we add housing for workers as part of that space? Can we use accessory dwelling units to create space in communities for some of these critical workers?

So, I think there is an opportunity to do both – raising wages and keeping those workers housed. I want the people who take care of my children every day, and the people who watch our parents and our grandparents in assisted living facilities or provide them services in their homes, I want them to have a good night’s rest, and for them to have the space and a comfortable place to live in, because they are critical workers, in my view.

ConvergneceRI: Let me follow up with that. I know that some insurance firms have launched programs to build housing for the homeless in Arizona and housing for health care workers, I believe, in Oakland. Given that hospitals and universities in Rhode Island have large, land-owning campuses, is there a way to create a pilot program to create housing supports for workers?
CLEMENT: Those are all possibilities and opportunities that we have, not only with the infusion of federal dollars, but also with the proposed hospital merger on the table [between Care New England, Lifespan, and Brown] as well.

The opportunity is there to do some really transformational projects and programs that not only help to provide better care for patients but also provide better homes for the health care workers as well.

ConvergenceRI: Following up on that, would that be a potential condition that the R.I. Attorney General could impose on such a proposed merger?
CLEMENT: HousingWorks RI is part of a group called “Protect our Health Care Coalition,” and we have been putting together a number of recommendations to do just that, looking at some of he upstream social determinants of health as part of potential condition of that merger.

Obviously, it all depends on what happens with the Federal Trade Commission first, and then as to what role the Attorney General will decide to play.

We have also been participating in the working group that the Rhode Island Foundation has convened, both on the federal dollars and how those will be dispersed, but also on the hospital merger, and we have been making recommendations throughout that process as well. [Editor’s Note: Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, told ConvergenceRI to expect the recommendations on the proposed hospital merger to be forthcoming in the next few weeks.]

ConvergenceRI: How important is it to change the decision-making process for how things get decided? In terms of my reporting on health care, it often seems that people are stuck in their hardened silos. And, that they don’t really talk to each other that much. People are very protective of their turf.
Can you talk about the ability to change the status quo and how that may involve changing the way that decisions get made?
CLEMENT: I am a little confused about your question. Are we back talking about health care?

ConvergenceRI: No, I am talking about housing.
CLEMENT: I think that is part of the broader structure question, figuring out how we better utilize the existing structure that we have – the Housing Resources Commission and the Office of Housing and Community Development, which has never really been fully staffed up.

That has never really been fully staffed up. In theory, those could be the places where the kinds of collaboration and conversations around housing can happen – and oversight of the money and resources can happen, too. And, working in partnership with Rhode Island Housing, can we implement programs and projects as well.

It is part of that overall housing infrastructure that exists within state government; we have talked about it for years and have made recommendations, but which we have never been able to move forward on. HomesRI has a series of recommendations that we have again submitted.

ConvergenceRI: What questions haven’t I asked, should I have asked, Brenda, that you feel are important, that you would like to talk about? And, if you could change the conversation and the emphasis, how would you like to see the conversation around housing change?
CLEMENT: One important topic, which again, we are giving more and more attention to each year in our Fact Book, in addition to all the social determinants of health, is looking again at the race and ethnic disparities in housing. We have just made no progress, particularly on home ownership in that space. We know that home ownership is often a key piece of creating economic stability for individuals and families, and we have literally shut the door on many, many minority families on that front in our state.

We need to do more, and we need to do better, and we need to create more opportunities for home ownership.

Another piece of work that we are embarking on with some funding from both the Tufts Health Plan Foundation and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island is on programs with a specific focus on seniors, housing and health.

We know that the housing needs for seniors are critical – because the population for seniors continues to grow in this state. We are trying to convene a group to talk about these issues, to figure out what is out there already, what is working, and how can we scale up what is working.

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Richard Asinof

Richard Asinof is the founder and editor of ConvergenceRI, an online subscription newsletter offering news and analysis at the convergence of health, science, technology and innovation in Rhode Island.

1 Comment

  1. FedUp on October 26, 2021 at 12:49 pm

    For the past year and a half landlords were forced to halt evictions for tenants that jumped on the Covid train. Despite plenty of funding for rent assistance, many would not apply since they could not be thrown out. Now those evictions are final able to begin and we’re trying to bail out people again? We have a worker shortage and with people having collected more in UE than wages, we now have people who no longer want to work. To top it off anyone on UE was eligible for free college classes. I can agree with helping seniors, but put the rest of the money towards rehabbing our schools and advancements at hospitals for quality care.