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Housing - RI Background

West Bay League of Women Voters

Whoops! One-third of RI's families can't afford to live here . . .

How bad is RI's affordable housing problem? Catastrophic. How can citizens help to solve it? Common-sensically.

Four experts offered those answers at a West Bay League of Women Voters open meeting on Tuesday evening, April 19, at the Warwick Police Station's community room to discuss "Understanding Rhode Island's Housing Needs." [This reporter's comments are added in brackets.].

Rhode Island housing holds three dubious national distinctions, explained Amy Rainone, Policy Director for the RI's Housing and Mortgage Finance Corporation (RIHMFC), the agency charged with housing RI's low and moderate-income families. Housing prices may be higher elsewhere but have risen here at the highest rate in the U.S.; meanwhile, our rates of vacancies and of new unit construction per capita are lowest.

Only lately has RI's record become so bad. Given the U.S. Commerce Department's recommended ratio of adding 700 housing units for every 1,000 jobs, Rhode Island blatantly overbuilt in the 1980's. We then added 1,800 units per 1,000 jobs, more than twice what we needed. Now, however, we're adding only 443 units per 1,000 jobs, little more than half of what we now need.

Yes, we've added more jobs to our economy [a good thing] and our average household size is smaller nowadays [another good thing, many say]. Yet our number of households seeking units far exceeds the number of units being built.

Why does demand so far exceed supply? What happened to building and buying starter homes on one-quarter acre lots or renting a decent 2-bedroom apartment for $350/month? Local zoning laws and building permit caps (often aimed at good things like preserving water quality and rural character while keeping local school costs down) have made such stories into myths. [Then too, real estate now seems a safer investment than stocks and bonds; but didn't tax incentives help produce that housing boom in the '80's?]

In any case, RI's cost to buy or rent housing recently doubled. Given the standard of a family's spending 30 percent of its monthly income on housing costs, our percentage of citizens who can't afford to rent or buy homes is now a whopping one-third. That's 124,000 families.

The Human Price
"We see the results [of RI's housing catastrophe] daily," testified Michelle Wilcox, Senior Vice President for Housing and Facilities at Crossroads Rhode Island, the private social service agency once named Travelers' Aid. Are we talking here about people chronically mentally ill or addicted? No: 80% of the agency's clients need help with homelessness on a one-time-only basis.

Between January and March of 2005, with food, medicine and utilities' prices skyrocketing as well as housing costs, Crossroads serviced a record 680 first-time homeless individuals and, at only its one of several shelters throughout the state, 48 newly homeless families. (Crossroads defines a family as an adult with at least one minor child.) The total of 159 families that the agency helped in those three months included 314 children: 70 percent were preschoolers. Sixty percent of those 159 homeless families included a working adult.

Still, some families and individuals are chronically homeless. Due perhaps to mental as well as physical illness or addiction, they need emergency shelter, transitional housing and/or permanently affordable (often federally rent-subsidized) housing. They need built-in social
services such as help with budgeting, transportation for doctors' visits, short or long-term counseling, or job training and placement. Then the ugliness and ignorance of NIMBY ("not in my backyard") often sets in.

For example, audience members at last week's [4/19] meeting contrasted personal experiences. On the one hand, teenagers have been seen tossing soda cans before school into Jefferson Boulevard from a short-staffed Crossroads-run former convent where a family can live, temporarily, in a 10 x 12 room built to house one nun. On the other hand and often in working-class communities, families routinely help one another to patch roofs and coach adolescents' sports teams. Community makes a big difference in defining one's "backyard."

Common-sense Solutions
What can citizens do besides praying for miracles?

Plenty, according to Elizabeth Debs, Deputy Director of The Housing Network, the association of RI's Community Development Corporations (CDCs), our many non-profit developers of affordable housing. Pointing to photos of single and multi-family houses - - both new and renovated – that the Network's members have already supplied throughout RI, she stressed
that none resemble the stereotypical post-WWII housing project.

CDCs build not just housing but neighborhoods. Working with grassroots citizen groups, CDCs have provided 1000 housing units in the last 2 years (including some revitalized Section 8 subsidies) but also boast of programs to provide job development, arts, gardening and a host of other community developments.

Each CDC, she noted, contributes from 6 to 40 units per year. Even though units cost an average of $200,000 per unit, they sell for $90,000 to $130,000. The gap is made up by coalitions of federal, state, city and private funding sources. The biggest increase in CDC costs comes when developments which typically take 2 years to build are dragged out to 5 years or more thanks to local opposition. Ironically, she added, CDCs aim to enhance extant communities.

Newly affordable CDC housing in RI complements rather than detracts from individual community character. How? League moderator Sheila Brush, also of GrowSmart RI, noted three meetings upcoming in May on "Best Practices in Affordable Housing Design." National experts from the HUD Design Advisor Program, RI architects and CDCs, and faculty from RI School of Design will offer three programs aimed at local officials and citizens. All start at 5:15 p.m. (including supper). They'll meet on Thursday May 5 at the URI University Club in Kingston, Thursday May 12 at William Davies, Jr. Career and Technical High School in Lincoln, and Tuesday May 17 at Roger Williams University Conference Center in Portsmouth. Register by calling GrowSmart Rhode Island at 228-6594.

Besides sponsoring and attending such public education initiatives, ordinary citizens can put their knowledge to work in their local communities by serving on and supporting affordable housing task forces.

RI law now demands that towns like West Bay's Coventry, East Greenwich and North Kingstown (which now have less than 10% affordable housing units) begin this summer to implement plans submitted by last December and to be state-approved by July. Those local plans would enable each town to reach, within 20 years, a goal of 10% affordable local housing. But without citizen involvement -- serving on task forces and commenting at Town Council and Planning Board hearings -- nothing will happen.

Five strategies for citizens were then outlined by Ben Gworek, Housing Net-work Community Organizer.

  1. Increase density in residential zones by creating village centers on main roads [and using improved techno-logy that makes wells and septic systems more compatible].
     
  2. Advocate inclusionary zoning to build mixed-income neighborhoods like those now common in 2,000 California towns where a minimum 20% of local units are affordable. Tax breaks and density bonuses offset private developers' profit losses or they pay fees in lieu of build-ing affordable units on-site [much as recreation needs are now funded by developers' contributing land or fees].
     
  3. Capture existing units: e.g., make in-law apartments available to non-family, and ease deed restrictions.
     
  4. Allow zoning exceptions to permit building on slightly sub-standard lots such as those lacking full minimum frontage requirements.
     
  5. Establish local housing trust funds to preserve, build and rehabilitate affordable housing. Money could come from federal Community Development Bloc Grants, fees in lieu of building affordable units on-site, impact fees, plus private and charitable donations. Much as local land trusts preserve open spaces, local housing trusts form non-profit collaboratives that own and lease land on which long-term subsidized housing is built. [Controlling land costs controls housing costs.] Housing trusts also help pay for down payments, closing costs and renovations on existing homes.

Finally, Gworek noted, affordable housing isn't pie-in-the-sky. It offers a vital economic stimulus to our state. Indeed, every $1 million invested in affordable housing attracts another $5 to 6 million in outside funds. [Residential tax rates need business; business needs workers; workers need housing. Housing stimulates business; business lowers residential tax rates.]

Warwick and Cranston [and West Warwick?] have many rental units if not at least 10% affordable housing, Sheila Brush noted. But such cities still need to review their comprehensive plans. Indeed, the City of Cranston is recruiting a Housing Task Force to do so this summer. Political willpower is also needed to formulate a Statewide Housing Plan by July of 2006.

Proposed federal budget cuts make statewide and local efforts all the more essential. Federal housing funds likely to be cut, the Department of Housing and Urban Development itself may well be swallowed by Commerce, and Community Development Bloc Grants may have an exclusively very-low-income focus. Congratulations are due, however, to the RI Congressional delegation for solidly opposing such cuts.

Handouts at the League meeting also solicited support for the Coalition for the Homeless statewide platform:

  1. Rhode Island provided no affordable housing funds until 4 years ago. A $5 million Neighborhood Opportunities Program then began to fund homes for working families. This spring House bill #5175 and Senate bill #06451 would raise NOP funding to $7.5 million.
     
  2. Another $350,000 would be allocated for Supportive Services to encourage independence and stability in people's lives, via House bill #5289 and Senate bill #0204.
     
  3. Another $600,000 would fund the Shelter to Housing Program to enable men, women and children to have stable employment, education and community contacts, via House bill #5793 and Senate bill #0145.

Discussions following the panel presentations highlighted the need for a real sense of community -- of YIMBY -- and suggested that RI might even fund prisoners' renovations of buildings in the state's Pontiac Avenue complex.

Is RI going over the top to provide affordable housing? Hardly. Research by Providence College Sociologist Eric Hirsch indicates that RI spends only $5 per citizen for housing production, whereas Massachusetts spends $25 and Connecticut $21.

Through its on-going comprehensive study of affordable housing in RI's West Bay area, the West Bay League of Women Voters hopes to update its 1989 position in favor of affordable housing at 2006 Annual Meeting, and thus lobby in support of local, statewide and national efforts to house all Rhode Islanders.

—Marie Hennedy

 


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