Sobering housing report outlines challenges for R.I. renters with extremely low incomes

Zoning reforms needed to ease burden, National Low Income Housing Coalition says

By: - March 17, 2023 5:01 am

Zoning codes favor single family homes, leaving low-income renters seeking affordable units in dire straits. (Getty photo)

About 60% of Rhode Island renters are severely cost-burdened, spending over half their income on housing, according to a report released Thursday by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes” found that a housing supply shortage was the main contributor to the state’s crisis, with only 27,547 homes available for 51,596 extremely low-income renters. These renters are defined as those making less than 30% of area median income. The gap between need and existing housing puts upward pressure on prices with greater competition for fewer homes.

According to RI Housing, the statewide area median income for a family of four ranges from $97,600 to $116,600, with the highest being on the three Aquidneck Island communities of Portsmouth, Middletown, and Newport.

“Since a disproportionate share of their income is being spent on monthly housing costs, this makes it difficult for these households to afford other essential needs,” said Housing Network of Rhode Island Executive Director Melina Lodge. 

Among those affected by the housing crunch is Sandy DaRosa, 32, of Pawtucket, a social work student at Rhode Island College. She recently testified at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on a series of renter’s rights bills. Two years ago, her landlord raised the monthly rent twice in one year, from $1,200 to $1,400.

“I know currently people are struggling and constantly thinking about where they are going to go,” she said in an interview, recalling the distress the cost increase placed on her and her partner and their three children. “I don’t want other individuals to experience the same stress that I did.”

The crisis is not isolated to Rhode Island. According to the report, the U.S. as a whole faces a deficit of 672,097 homes affordable to extremely-low-income earners. 

The situation is not great in Rhode Island. But it is less intense than on the West Coast, and in Arizona, Texas, Colorado, Florida, Maryland and Delaware. (National Low Income Housing Coalition)

Cost burdens

The crunch is not affecting all income earners equally. While 86% of extremely low-income households are cost burdened — spending more than a third of their income on housing — 73% are severely so. The rates of cost burden reduce as one goes up the income spectrum. Only 21% of middle income — those between 80% and 100% of area median income — earners are cost burdened and just 2% severely so.

Only 6% of those earning above area median income are cost burdened and 1% are severely cost burdened.

Large gaps exist between racial groups as well. Nationally, 57% of Black non-Latino households are cost burdened to some extent, 52% of Latino households, 45% of American Indian, and 38% of Asians fall into the same category. Non-Latino households have the lowest rates at 27%.

Rhode Island is slightly more equal in cost burden when it comes to renters. According to the HousingWorks RI 2022 Housing Factbook, between 47% and 48% of each demographic’s households white, Black and Latino renters fall under the category. Asian renters face the least pressure, at 33%. 

The situation among homeowners though tells a different story. About 69% of white Rhode Islanders are homeowners —versus 47% of R.I. Asians, 36% of Black Rhode Islanders, and 33% of Latino residents. Among white homeowners,  26% are cost burdened, compared to 37% of Black homeowners, 40% of Latino homeowners, and 21% of Asians.

I know currently people are struggling and constantly thinking about where they are going to go. I don’t want other individuals to experience the same stress that I did.

– Sandy DaRosa, 32, of Pawtucket, who recently testified at a hearing on renter’s rights at the State House


The report called for reforming local zoning laws to ease the burden on low-income renters.

“Exclusionary zoning that favors the development of single-family homes, limits high-density housing, and stipulates other restrictions like minimum lot sizes, set-backs, and parking requirements severely limits the amount and types of new housing that can be built,” the authors wrote.

But zoning reform is a big challenge in Rhode Island, said Brenda Clement, executive director of HousingWorks RI. “Close to 90% of the state is zoned for single-families,” she said. 

The report cautioned against relying on the private sector to service low-income families when it comes to housing.

“Absent public subsidy, private market development typically targets the higher-priced end of the housing market and, on its own,” the authors wrote. “Rarely produces new rental housing affordable to the lowest-income households.”

The General Assembly, under the leadership of Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, recently announced a 14-bill legislative package to encourage private development of housing. Among them were bills aimed at zoning reform, increasing access to affordable housing around transit hubs, and a bill allowing the construction of accessory dwelling units in certain single-family zones.

In the end, the report concludes a multi-pronged strategy of federal, state, and local housing policies will be required to change the landscape.

“It’s counterproductive for us to pick sides,” Clement said. “It’s really multiple solutions that we need to fix the problem.”



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