Rhode Island's affordable housing law has long been in need of adjustments and a fresh look. We're anxiously awaiting the results of just such an examination by state legislators.
There is no denying Rhode Island has an affordable housing problem. Thankfully, members of our local legislature are stepping up to try and address it.
At a recent community conversation held in Warren — prompted in large part due to an unpopular affordable housing project proposed within its historic district — Reps. June Speakman (Bristol, Warren) and Jason Knight (Warren, Barrington) led a dialogue on how Rhode Island got to its current crisis, and what tangible steps could be taken to address it. It was attended by around 30 residents, including members of local governing boards, representatives of voluntary historic preservation groups, members of housing development groups, as well as another member of the legislature, Sen. Walter Felag Jr.
The conversation was productive for a number of reasons. First, it showed that our elected officials are listening to the concerns of residents who are currently navigating a crystal-clear example of the impacts of the state’s flawed approach to addressing affordable housing.
Second, it helped establish the history that led to this moment in Warren — where an attorney for a private developer is able to seemingly stroll into town and kick their feet up on the planning board’s table with a list of demands and an attitude bordering on indignation that they didn’t receive a rubber stamp and an approval within the first meeting.
The guiding legislation for Rhode Island’s affordable housing strategy (the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act) was enacted over 30 years ago, in 1991. It was done so without a clear directive on how to achieve the goals it set out, without a concentrated leader to direct those efforts, and seemingly without much thought put into how the 39 vastly different communities throughout the state would be challenged by a demand to create 10% of their housing stock as “affordable.”
It also clarified that some issues — like the determination that “affordable housing” actually means affordable at a rate equal to 80% of the area median income — are largely out of the control of our local elected officials. That is a federal, HUD issue, Rep. Speakman explained.
The conversation also revealed that, originally, private developers were not included in the affordable housing statute when it was enacted. They were added later, when officials determined that affordable housing wasn’t being built fast enough. Clearly, their inclusion has not remedied the problem.
From our assessment of the facts, there are a few conclusions we are prepared to make.
Most importantly, we should accept the fact that as the law exists, private developers are not the solution to this problem. They currently have no financial incentive to develop more than the required minimum of affordable units, and nor should we naively expect them to. This reality means communities will continuously be forced to dedicate resources to fight developments, like we’re seeing in Warren, that don’t actually move the needle on affordable housing. The state should focus on assisting nonprofit housing developers, or perhaps in rare cases providing incentives to private developers only if they provide a net positive on the stock of affordable housing in that community.
Next, the law should be tailored to better fit individual communities. A one-size-fits-all approach has clearly not worked. Reaching 10% affordable in East Providence is a much different task than reaching 10% in Barrington, and the law should reflect that.
Lastly, local municipalities need to take responsibility as well. Warren finds itself in this precarious situation, in some part, because they have a long-expired comprehensive plan which could otherwise possibly shield them from a development being built within its historic section of town. A clear comprehensive plan, with sections dedicated to showing a willingness to allow and fast-track affordable housing in areas of the town that are more agreeable, must be prioritized and enacted. Warren is working on this, but it must be finished. Other communities should follow suit, enacting targeted zoning specifically for affordable housing projects.
We are grateful that Rep. Speakman is leading a committee looking into changing the affordable housing statute, and we look forward to the recommendations they will come forward with, which she says should be coming in February.