By REP. K. JOSEPH SHEKARCHI For years, housing advocates have been sounding the alarm that Rhode Island is facing a severe housing shortage. We simply don't have enough housing to meet the needs of our growing workforce, and too much of our existing
For years, housing advocates have been sounding the alarm that Rhode Island is facing a severe housing shortage. We simply don’t have enough housing to meet the needs of our growing workforce, and too much of our existing housing is unaffordable for too many families.
Rhode Island has numerous dedicated housing advocates, many of whom have been doing yeoman’s work for years with limited resources. However, there is no single person or agency charged with synthesizing efforts, directing policy and leading the work.
At the State House, we are moving quickly to address this issue.
Recently, I introduced legislation to create a deputy secretary of commerce and housing. I have compared this role to a “team captain” and testified recently before the House Finance Committee to advocate for the funding necessary to create this position, which would report directly to the secretary of commerce. We have other team captains in state government – agency directors and administrators – to advocate for and manage issues of high importance, including education, health and labor. If we want to truly make housing a priority, we need to have a central point person leading and coordinating those efforts.
Rhode Island’s housing czar would also develop a matrix for accountability: as the captain of our housing team, this individual would be responsible for benchmarking progress, but would also hold legislators and state agencies accountable.
There’s no one silver bullet to solve Rhode Island’s housing crisis. Rather, it will take a series of steps, and a commitment over time, to keep housing at the forefront of our consciousness.
The housing czar legislation is one piece in a seven-bill package of housing legislation aimed at making housing more available and affordable in Rhode Island. Just recently the House passed, and the Governor signed, legislation to prohibit discrimination against renters based on their source of income. I am proud to have advocated for the Fair Housing Practices Act for the past several years. My colleagues recognize the importance of this issue and share my sense of urgency: four other bills from our housing legislative package have already passed in the House. Our aim is to strategically approach the housing crisis from multiple angles by encouraging development while reducing barriers for people to find homes.
Additionally, Governor McKee has pledged in his budget to create a permanent funding stream for the construction of affordable housing by implementing a higher tax rate for homes selling for more than $700,000.
Voters recently approved a $65 million bond to invest in affordable housing. Senator Jack Reed was instrumental in securing $400 million in rental assistance for Rhode Island, which will go a long way in helping both landlords and tenants. And, Rhode Island will receive about $1.78 billion from the federal American Rescue Plan, which is truly a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
It is also important to note that President Biden, as part of his American Jobs Act, has proposed a $5 billion competitive grants program to incentivize municipalities to eliminate barriers to producing affordable housing, such as “exclusionary zoning and harmful land use policies.” Rhode Island’s housing czar could ensure that we maximize opportunities like this. The federal funding coming our way is a temporary, one-time fix; however, if we coordinate our efforts to maximize our investments, we have an opportunity to affect change in Rhode Island for generations to come.
It will take an “all hands on deck approach” to find sustainable solutions to Rhode Island’s housing crisis, and we must capitalize on the opportunities before us. As a state, we need to ensure that we are coordinating our efforts, streamlining processes, and maximizing our impact. It is not enough to allocate money to the issue and say “problem solved.” In order to make our state’s housing goals achievable, we need to have the organization and capacity to carry this effort over the finish line.
K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Democrat from Warwick, is the Speaker of the House