Fresh off General Assembly wins, Pryor looks to tackle state housing crisis

‘We are getting started in earnest,’ housing secretary says.

By: - July 10, 2023 5:00 am

Rhode Island Secretary of Housing Stefan Pryor speaks during the bill signing event at the former Aldrich Junior High School in Warwick on July 5, 2023. ‘We are getting started in earnest,’ he said. ‘The task now is to set realistic expectations.’ (Capitol TV screenshot)

Standing at a podium beneath a scorching sun in Warwick, Rhode Island Secretary of Housing Stefan Pryor celebrated the victory that accompanied the passage of a 13-bill legislative package on the morning of Wednesday, July 5. 

State officials celebrate Shekarchi housing package in Warwick

“We are getting started in earnest,” he told the gathered dignitaries at the former Aldrich Junior High School on Post Road. Plans are already in motion to transform the defunct school into 75-units of affordable senior housing, largely thanks to the legislative package.

Pryor, who became secretary of housing four months ago, believes the new legislation provides the Department of Housing with the tools necessary to overcome the soaring rents, low housing production rates, and homelessness crisis currently facing the Ocean State.

“Fortunately, there’s been tremendous support from the governor’s office and the General Assembly,” Pryor said in an interview with Rhode Island Current later  that Wednesday afternoon. “The challenges are great but the support is so very significant and ever-growing.

“We have inherited decades of under-investment and something approximating inaction,” he continued. “So the remedies will not take effect overnight, but we are getting started.”

Housing Secretary Steven Pryor (center) appears before the State Properties Committee on Tuesday, May 2, 2023. (Photo by Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

Pryor and the Housing Department undoubtedly were among the biggest winners of the 2023 state legislative session that gave the department he leads a $250 million budget allocation. That includes over $31 million in funds to boost housing production focused on “shovel ready projects.” Money will also go to preserve existing affordable housing, and fund new affordable housing around transit hubs.

While often described as discretionary funding, Pryor disputed said the $31 million is categorically allocated.

“These processes (to distribute the money) will, in most cases, require applications,” he said. ”In some cases, the funds are deliberately at our request to work in collaboration with us. It’s not one big discretionary fund, it’s a set of articulated uses.”

Pryor added that part of his $250 million budget will go to hire 21 more staffers in addition to the 17 already employed by the agency. No positions had been posted on the state’s jobs portal as of Friday.

“We have already started working with a subset of these positions to get them posted,” he said. “We’re expecting approvals for that subset to get started then they will be posted and recruited and hired.”

Senior positions focused on proactive housing development and tackling homelessness would be priorities for hiring, he said.

Tackling homelessness

Among the most public of the department’s efforts since Pryor took over in March, the ramp down of the Cranston Street Armory, a Providence warming shelter that opened in December and sheltered up to 200 people on any given night. It closed on May 15 after complaints from the neighborhood and a scramble to find housing for the remaining 90 people in the shelter.

“We should be proud that given the inherited mandate of closing the armory,” Pryor said. “We responsibly, undertook that ramp down and simultaneously ramped up a series of shelters and centers. 

“We opened up over 150 beds in short order,” he continued. “We, all stakeholders involved, ought to be proud of that. It’s important that we undertake this work.”

Rhode Island’s unhoused population has been growing at an alarming rate in recent years. At a press conference announcing the results of the 2023 Point In Time Count — a national census of unhoused people conducted annually on a single night in January — Rhode Island’s unhoused population increased an estimated 15% from 1,577 in 2022 to 1,810 in 2023. 

We have inherited decades of under-investment and something approximating inaction. So the remedies will not take effect overnight, but we are getting started.

– Rhode Island Secretary of Housing Stefan Pryor

Pryor added that a large portion of the department’s budget will also go towards the acquisition of properties and support of the homeless service providers throughout the state. Fears that the department was given powers of eminent domain — which Pryor denied — led to a softening of language in the final budget amendment.

That was fine by him. Pryor said he felt it meant the department could work with communities more effectively.

“Acquisition and assembly of property done on friendly terms is not a risk or a threat to private property owners,” Pryor said. “That’s the predominant way in which we will go about our work. So there really isn’t a risk or threat associated with that.”

Among the “dozens” of properties the department is exploring for new shelters is the former Charlesgate Nursing Center off North Main Street in Providence. 

“There are other instances in which it is possible that we would acquire properties,” he said, “but it is not a necessary precondition for service providers to work out of them.” 


Pryor had been the state’s longtime commerce secretary until he left that post last year to make an unsuccessful run for state treasurer. He lost in the Democratic primary to James Diossa last September. Before coming to Rhode Island, he had served as Connecticut’s commissioner of education from 2011 to 2015 and as deputy mayor of Newark, New Jersey from 2006 to 2011. Pryor also served for five years as president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation in New York City.

His background will help him sell the state’s top priority moving forward: increasing housing production to stabilize rents and house Rhode Islanders without homes.

“The challenge, or caution, that all of us as Rhode Islanders should feel is if we don’t work in a collaborative fashion developing housing, we will crowd out our children and grandchildren,” he said. “They will seek housing affordable to them in other states.

“But the authority and tools granted to us allow us to do so in a friendly, and given the scenario needed, way to promote housing development.”

Among housing advocates, there is general support of Pryor’s work up to this point.

“You have to walk, chew gum, and balance all at the same time when dealing with housing issues,” said Brenda Clement, executive director of HousingWorks RI. “I think he’s trying hard and truly committed to the work.

“But the true test is yet to come.”

About 80% of Rhode Island homes were built before 1980, according to HousingWorks RI, leading to a supply crunch and the creation of a market where rents increase annually at almost 24%, the fifth-highest in the nation.

In addition, a report from Boston Consulting Group found that only one housing unit was produced per 1,000 people in Rhode Island in 2021, and that only 800 multifamily units have been built in the state since 2008.

“To very substantially affect the market, it will take years,” Pryor said. “So we need to set realistic expectations and get real developments going in order to show a way forward.”

Pryor said that 1,400 units were already approved in June, a good start. But the housing shortage problem arose over a number of years, and will take years to resolve.

“We are also presented with a mandate based upon an unfortunate set of circumstances we have accumulated over decades of under production and under prioritization related to housing,” he said. “But it is a blessing that leadership is so aligned and at long last addressing the problem.”


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Kevin G. Andrade
Kevin G. Andrade

Kevin G. Andrade previously covered education, housing and human services for Rhode Island Current.