A package of 14 housing bill may be a boon to private developers, but without further legislative action it is unlikely to result in helping those most in need of housing in the state.
A package of 14 bills introduced to the Rhode Island House of Representatives earlier this month may be a boon to private developers looking to build housing projects throughout the state, but without further legislative action it is unlikely they will help create truly affordable housing units throughout the state.
While we appreciate the efforts of the many legislators who spent time examining the current housing situation, many problematic and underlying functions of the existing state housing strategy are not addressed by these bills.
Recent history shows that private housing developments have not been a reliable generator of truly affordable units — and it would be naive to think that empowering more similar developments under the existing regulatory climate would change that.
Data from Harvard University and the National Equity Atlas shows that the number of people who are house burdened (spending 30% or more of their income on housing) has stayed relatively consistent — about 47% of renters — since 2016. An argument that making things easier for private developments to be built will boost that number is optimistic at best, because it simply has not done so to this point.
One bill would enable developers to qualify for inclusionary zoning — where they are granted the ability to build a development that is 30% more dense than allowed by local zoning — if 10% of those units are listed at an “affordable” rate. However, developers would still be allowed to provide payments in-lieu of actually creating affordable units. Those payments would go to local or state-operated trusts that would, presumably, somehow, translate to affordable housing at a later date. Why provide this option at all if the goal is to create affordable units, now, and not later?
That point aside, is 10% really an aggressive enough minimum given our clear need for more affordable housing units?
One could also argue that the state’s very definition of “affordable” housing remains flawed. Rhode Island bases eligibility for affordable housing based on Area Median Income (AMI), which is a standard set by the federal office of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and relates to the gross income of individuals and families. In Bristol County, a family of four making $77,350 qualifies for affordable housing. An individual qualifies if they make $54,150 a year — based on that being 80% of the AMI, which is $97,600, according to HUD as of 2022.
As the law exists, a developer needs only to create units that are “affordable” (meaning, the rent is 30% or less than those income figures above to a person making 80% of the AMI). So the family of four earning $77,350 per year (or less!) and the single parent earning $54,150 per year (or less!) is presented with “affordable” rents of $1,355 or $1,934 per month, respectively. For too many cost-burdened Rhode Island families, those rents are not affordable.
If the aforementioned bill passes, an 80-unit housing project would be empowered to create 30% more units than allowed through local zoning if they include only 8 “affordable” units. But in theory, they could create fewer, or even zero actual affordable units, if they opt to make payments in lieu instead. Private developers understandably seek to make a profit from their investments, and laws proposed or existing provide no incentive for them to create more affordable units, or to price them any lower than 80% of the AMI.
While the 14 bills proposed might make it easier for developers to build, continuing to rely on the existing affordable housing formula will do nothing to create more homes within the price range of those who need them most.