There’s no denying the housing crisis is widely known and felt in Providence and across the state. According to Housing Works RI’s 2020 Fact Book, over 146,000 Rhode Island households are burdened by the cost of rent or mortgage payments, spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. In 36 out of 39 municipalities, a family earning $50,000 cannot afford to rent a modest two-bedroom apartment without becoming cost-burdened.
What is, perhaps, less known is that thorough proposals to solve the crisis do exist. At the end of June this year, and in advance of the CDC-issued eviction moratorium being lifted in August, Rhode Island organizations BLM RI PAC, Sunrise Providence, Sunrise RI Youth, RI Political Co-op, Rebuild Woonsocket, and Renew Rhode Island came together to address the lack of affordable housing in Rhode Island and to co-author a proposal that addresses the scale of the crisis.
Their plan would create 10,000 new green and affordable housing units over the course of eight years. The proposal cites the creation of new jobs – under Project Labor Agreements ensuring all workers receive fair pay, high-quality benefits, and safe working conditions – and a decrease in rental and mortgage costs across the state among the benefits of building these units.
A disproportionate burden on households of color shows that the crisis is an issue of systemic racism as well. “The housing affordability crisis has particularly severe consequences for Black and brown state residents,” says Spencer Reed, a key organizer for Renew Rhode Island. “Approximately 44 percent of white renters in our state are cost-burdened by housing, while nearly 52 percent of Black renters in RI are cost-burdened.”
The proposal also accounts for the growing urgency of the climate emergency and addresses the need for new housing to be sustainable: energy-efficient, equipped with rooftop solar panels, and, when possible, located near public transit routes.
The plan calls for the investment of $700 million from the $1.7 billion provided by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), as well as federal grants and general revenue to ultimately fund the $2.5 billion plan over eight years.
“This summer, Rhode Island [received] $1.7 billion from the federal government. Our government has no plan for how to spend it. That’s why we felt the need to step up and demand our government invest $700 million of that money in affordable housing,” Reed explains.
By comparison, in 2019, Massachusetts and Connecticut each spent approximately five times as much on affordable housing construction than Rhode Island on a per capita basis.
The state has begun to allocate the money received from the American Rescue Plan, though as of September, Governor Dan McKee indicated the state would spend only $100 million of those funds split between housing, childcare, and assisting small businesses. The rest of the funds will be spent on other areas of importance like infrastructure, climate change, health, equity, and education, though these areas all tend to intersect with housing, particularly given the green housing proposed in the coalitions’ plan.
When asked for Governor McKee’s response to the proposal from these Rhode Island coalitions, the governor’s office did not address the groups’ plan directly. Instead, they emphasized what the governor is currently doing and intends to do to address the crisis. This includes providing RentReliefRI funds to those in need, positioning RentReliefRI staff outside courthouses to aid those facing eviction, creating a permanent funding stream for affordable housing in his FY 2022 budget, and creating a Deputy Secretary of Commerce and Housing to oversee initiatives and develop a housing plan.
The governor’s office added that “The Governor is also interested in using American Rescue Plan funds to address the crisis, including investments in preserving and creating affordable housing and permanent supportive housing, but stressed the importance of reaching a long-term solution collaboratively alongside agencies, partners, and providers.”
However, no details were provided about specific plans for a long-term solution to the ongoing crisis.
“It is well within the power of our leaders to make housing affordable for every Rhode Islander. With a wave of money coming in from the federal government, now is the time for us to demand it,” Reed shares.
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