Housing - RI Background

From the LWV RI Voter, February 2004

After reading article after article detailing the affordable housing shortage, dire warnings about average citizens being priced out the market, sad stories about families living in shelters for the homeless, and citizen outrage at being forced to allow building that is not consistent with their existing communities, one has to admit - Rhode Island has a housing problem. The numbers are inescapable, but why is there widespread opposition to the affordable housing bill that was passed by the legislature last year? Why isn't what we have done in the past enough for low income families now? Are we all such snobs, that we don't want "poor people" among us?

First of all, "While the number of Rhode Island households grew by 30,447 from 1990-2000, the number of new housing units grew by only 25,265."1 Moreover, the bulk of that new housing was single family detached housing.2

"The minimum wholesale cost of a buildable lot at allowable densities is well beyond $50,000 in all suburban areas ($75,000-$100 ,000 or more in most). The builder's rule of thumb is that land costs generally comprise at least 25% of the cost of a new home."3 At $225,000 the bulk of new buildings therefore were not "affordable" by anyone earning less than $80,000 a year. In the urban core communities where it is at least theoretically possible to build a home for less, there is little land available because they are at or near full buildout, and like in the suburbs, zoning generally reflects what exists rather than what could be.

"Based on statistics published by the Rhode Island Housing Mortgage and Finance Corporation ("RIHMFC") there are only 35,217 moderate and low income housing units in Rhode Island (including rental units) for the State's 175,000 moderate and low income households."4

Essentially we have little affordable housing and there is virtually no way to increase affordable housing in cities or towns in Rhode Island. Isn't this snobbery? All things considered it isn't. The roots of the problem are really in the size of the state, traditional New England housing patterns, job and transportation factors, and what we learned from the way affordable housing was developed in the past.

Everyone knows Rhode Island is small. In other parts of the country, like Washington state, developers can go in and build town size communities, complete with roads, water, sewers and schools all built into the cost of development. And apart from a development's nearest neighbors, few people notice the change. This isn't something Rhode Island can even dream about. There are no vast tracts, or even large tracts, of developable land, and supply and demand says what land there is isn't going to be cheap. Moreover, since everywhere in Rhode Island is "nearby," the likelihood of being able to build anything different from what already exists in any area without affecting neighbors is nil. The entire state is a neighbor.

The traditional New England housing pattern for high density housing is the classic triple-decker. Rhode Island does not have large numbers of "town" or "row" houses like Philadelphia, and apartment buildings with more than 3 floors are almost non-existent compared to what can be seen in cities like Boston and New York.5 Maybe it is a matter of scale or just a matter of familiarity, but people in Rhode Island have a definite affinity to types of buildings that do not promote high population densities.

Job patterns combined with the scale of the state are another negative factor when it comes to high density housing. For example, people who work in Providence do not feel the need to actually live in Providence. Apart from the islands in the Bay, it is possible to commute to work in Providence from anywhere in Rhode Island in under an hour (barring weather and other traffic disasters). So people can and do live elsewhere,- where they can have a larger house, have a larger yard, taxes are lower, schools are better, there is less crime, etc. Moreover, many businesses are moving out of cities because it is easier and cheaper to build what they need on open land rather than to renovate a building or to displace neighbors (not to mention businesses are leaving the state and the country for economic reasons). So jobs and the desire/need for higher density housing in existing cities is not really there.

Why does the past matter? In other eras housing was simply built as needed without necessarily any regard to safety or other current health considerations. As late as 1940, 23.8% of housing units in RI did not have "complete plumbing facilities" (complete as defined by the Census bureau as having "hot and cold piped water, tub or shower, and a flush toilet.")6 People trying to renovate old triple-deckers now find it very difficult, if not impossible, to satisfy current electrical codes, fire access codes, lead paint and asbestos regulations, etc. which were developed in response to problems in old buildings. Stories of building disasters here and abroad reinforce our belief in the necessity of high building standards, but the standards mean we cannot build new or retrofit existing buildings quickly and cheaply.

The rapid transformation of Warwick and Cranston from semi-rural/farm communities into sprawling urban/suburban communities is still remembered vividly by a large portion of the population. Despite the fact that these communities are now considered highly desirable for families because of their affordability, their schools, and their activities for children; the speed of their change still shocks and appalls people so zoning that restricts rapid change is widely considered good.

It is now generally accepted that the "big box" affordable housing projects built in the 60's by Great Society programs were a failure. "The concentration of urban poor in high density projects remote from areas of economic opportunity resulted in isolation, stigmatization, drugs, crime, and the perpetuation of poverty."7 Although, earlier housing projects were initially just regarded as a affordable places to live while waiting to be able to buy a new home, the stigma of the 60's developments has spread so that the words "housing project" are now synonymous with poverty, crime, and hopelessness. Therefore current housing policy advocates mixed income housing development, that the poor and others below the median income should not be left to live in "ghettos", and that every city should be responsible for a "fair share" of affordable housing.

So what does this all mean for Rhode Island? Unless all communities, urban and suburban are willing to look at the state as a whole and what we are willing to do regarding schools, jobs, and housing and to accept change in our communities, there is no hope that the affordable housing shortage will improve.


1 "The Geography of Housing Opportunity in Rhode Island" by Blish and Cavanagh, the RI Builders Association, www.ribuilders.org

2 2000 U.S. Census and "Historical Census of Housing Tables, Units in Structure", www.census.gov

3 "The Geography of Housing Opportunity in Rhode Island"

4 "The Geography of Housing Opportunity in Rhode Island"

5 "Historical Census of Housing Tables, Units in Structure",

6 "Historical Census of Housing Tables, Plumbing Facilities" www.census.gov

7 "The Geography of Housing Opportunity in Rhode Island"


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