Proposed legislation offers a solution to make housing a priority

Package of 14 bills can turn around Rhode Island’s last place ranking for housing starts

May 8, 2023 4:00 am

Rhode Island has a housing supply problem. A legislative package now before the General Assembly is one solution. (Photo by NicoElNino/Getty image)

There are lots of sobering statistics about skyrocketing rents and home prices, but here is the most telling. Year after year, Rhode Island ranks dead last in housing starts nationally. Our economy can’t grow if there is no place for people to live. And that affects everyone. It affects our sons and daughters entering the workforce for the first time. It affects older Rhode Islanders. It affects decisions about business relocation and expansion. It affects the most vulnerable among us. The solution is clear. We need to create more housing at all price levels.

A legislative package under consideration by the General Assembly aims to promote more new housing construction at all price ranges. (Photo courtesy of the Rhode Island Foundation)

Gov. Dan McKee, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio earmarked $250 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding for housing to help tackle these challenges. In addition, there is a package of legislation that would help. Championed by Speaker Shekarchi, the bills tackle the housing shortage head on. As a member of the state’s Special Legislative Commission to Study the Low and Moderate Housing Act, I am aware of the cost of maintaining the status quo and the potential for economic growth that this package of bills presents. The commission has heard testimony from a multitude of experts, stakeholders, and average Rhode Islanders. This package of bills makes easing the affordability crisis a top priority for the state.

And most recently, we released a robust report prepared by the Boston Consulting Group, Housing Supply and Homelessness in Rhode Island done in support of and in collaboration with the Department of Housing. Under the guidance of a steering committee consisting of funding partners Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, the Partnership for Rhode Island, and Rhode Island LISC — and with staff support from the United Way of Rhode Island — the effort engaged a wide range of stakeholders, including key providers and leaders in the homelessness and housing sectors; around housing strategy, development, finance, and organizational design across the private, public and social service sectors.

Our economy can’t grow if there is no place for people to live.

The options and observations are the result of a significant effort to analyze data and to review best practices. Going forward, it is the responsibility of the Department of Housing to engage stakeholders further around the facts and options in the study and implement next steps in a transparent and accountable manner.

The stakes are high. The unsheltered live in tents and below highway overpasses. The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s most recent “Out of Reach” report found that Rhode Islanders would need to earn a minimum of $24.32 per hour — or about $50,000 a year — to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment in 2022. Who does that leave out? Rhode Islanders in the service industry, retail workers, CNAs, entry level teachers and others who are the foundation of our economy. The future of the American Dream is even more dire. The Rhode Island Association of Realtors reports that there were just 864 single family homes for sale in February of this year. Not surprisingly, the median sales price was $384,000. The supply of one-to-four family homes was even more constrained. There were just 147 properties for sale. The median sales price? $450,000.

Rhode Island has a supply problem. The work we all are doing can jump start the creation of housing for all Rhode Islanders. Now is the time to act.

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Neil D. Steinberg
Neil D. Steinberg

Neil D. Steinberg is president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, which us largest and most comprehensive funder of nonprofit organizations in Rhode Island. Working with generous and visionary donors, the Foundation raised more than $75 million in gifts and awarded nearly $84 million in grants last year.