Rhode Island Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor prepares to speak to the Providence Housing Crisis Task Force beside Assistant Housing Secretary Hannah Moore in a meeting in Providence City Hall on Monday, May 22, 2023. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)
PROVIDENCE — Efforts to find emergency housing for unhoused individuals and a recent decision by Rhode Island Housing to subsidize over 1,400 mostly affordable housing units throughout the state leaves about $30 million left for future housing projects.
But there will be more rounds of funding to come, Housing Secretary Stefan I. Pryor told the Providence City Council’s Housing Crisis Task Force during a meeting at City Hall Monday night.
“The truth is that of the dollars devoted to housing development, there’s only in the neighborhood of $30 million to $32 million left for fiscal year 2024 and going forward out of the state fiscal recovery fund dollars out of the American Rescue Plan,” Pryor said.
He was referring to funding from a $250 million allocation that came from the $1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds given to the state by the federal government, Pryor said.
“We’ve seen a spike because we did invest ARPA money, I think wisely, in housing,” he said. “But we’re going to see this decline, next year, back to a baseline that is much too low.”
Rhode Island has consistently ranked second to last in housing investment among New England states, spending about $144.6 million between fiscal years 2015 and and 2022, behind only New Hampshire. ARPA funding temporarily bumped up investment, though the state would have to continue an adequate level of funding on its own.
New Hampshire spent approximately $38.5 million in the same time frame.
“I think it’s fair to say, the state government, the city and town governments of our state have been insufficiently resourcing housing production in preservation,” he said. “We are not in a good position if we’re competing with New Hampshire.”
Pryor added that policymakers seemed receptive to a Low-Income Housing Tax Credit proposed by Gov. Dan McKee that would subsidize developers of affordable housing up to $30 million total statewide on an annual basis.
Yet the most immediate crisis facing housing in the state was providing shelter to the unhoused, especially given the recent high-profile closure of the Cranston Street Armory Warming Shelter on May 15.
“We’re not where we want to be but at least shelter is having an impact,” Pryor said. “It’s very important we continue to focus on emergency measures.”
We are not in a good position if we’re competing with New Hampshire.
– Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor
State authorities and local service organizations expanded shelter capacity by 150 beds in anticipation of the shelter’s closure in Warwick, North Smithfield, Woonsocket, and Providence.
Root of the problem
Of the 1,400 units recently approved by Rhode Island Housing, more than 1,200 were new units and 604 were in Providence, the epicenter of Rhode Island’s housing crisis. Pryor chairs the Rhode Island Housing board.
According to a recent study commissioned by the Rhode Island Foundation performed by Boston Consulting Group, housing construction in the state was last in the nation in 2021, at only one unit per 1,000 residents.
That low-production rate led to skyrocketing housing prices due to a lack of supply to meet demand. The supply crisis led the Providence Metro Area (including Fall River and New Bedford) to rank fifth highest year-over-year rate of rental cost increases in the country at 23.8%, according to the HousingWorks RI 2022 Housing Factbook.
Yet at the same time, 150,000 Rhode Islanders are housing cost burdened, with more than 24,000 in Providence — 37% of the city’s population — spending more than a third of their income on housing costs.
The highest proportion of cost-burdened homes was in Central Falls, where 50% of households are cost burdened.
“This presentation is not designed to make us feel good,” Pryor said.
Task force members focused on tackling the conditions of the unhoused in the capital. Ward 14 City Council member Shelley Peterson reflected on a visit she made to an encampment with Ward 4 Council member Justin Roias.
“We found that people re-entering society in addition to the fact that services were not being offered to people in these encampments,” she said. “My question is what are you doing to meet the very basic needs of people in their day-to-day lives?”
“What we as a small, fledgling department, are doing is aiming to open new shelter locations across the state,” Pryor answered. “Our money is not limitless but we are hoping to use some of that to acquire properties” to expand shelter and affordable housing options.
Task Force Chair and Ward 11 City Councilor Mary Kay Harris called the inability to adequately provide services to the unhoused a systematic failure affecting all Rhode Islanders.
“It seems to me that people are so disconnected from the system by the system that they self-medicate,” she said, referring to substance abuse issues among the unhoused. “People are looking for community.”
Pryor said that the department only had 17 staffers and that Providence and other municipalities would have to do their part to resolve the crisis.
“Our position is we have to provide more shelters to them,” he said. “My question is: What are we going to do together?”
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