EDITORIAL

Now is the time to tackle housing affordability

Posted 4/21/21

We all know the cautionary tale of the oblivious frog being boiled in a pot of water that slowly but steadily rises in temperature. In many ways, affordable housing in Rhode Island has followed that example throughout the years - apart from the fact that

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EDITORIAL

Now is the time to tackle housing affordability

Posted

We all know the cautionary tale of the oblivious frog being boiled in a pot of water that slowly but steadily rises in temperature. In many ways, affordable housing in Rhode Island has followed that example throughout the years – apart from the fact that the frog in this case (Rhode Island residents) is well aware of its perilous, unsustainable situation.

Thankfully, it seems state legislators, policy experts and affordable housing advocates have joined cost-burdened residents in recognizing the increasing heat – and are searching for ways to turn down the dial.

In Rhode Island, like virtually everywhere else in the nation, the pandemic has sparked nationwide housing shortages combined nastily with increased housing costs, brought home by a stagnation of new development and renovations thanks to the increased cost of building materials. The result has been fewer houses available, for more money than ever. Those who can afford the higher costs are unaffected, while those stretching budgets increasingly find home ownership nothing more than a dream.

But even prior to the pandemic, home ownership was likely not even a consideration for any couple making significantly less than the median income of $89,000 – or any single individual in the beginning or early years of their career – due to the simple mathematical reality of high housing costs relative to the average wages available in the state.

This is not to say the rental market provides any better opportunities. The average cost of a single-bedroom apartment hovers around $2,000 in Providence, $1,500 in Warwick and around $1,200 in Cranston. This amounts to $24,000, $18,000 and $14,400 per year spent on something that earns no equity – essentially requiring renters to tread water while eating up a significant portion of their take home pay and leaving little to nothing to set aside to save for a down payment on that dream home.

According to HousingWorks RI, 146,000 households in Rhode Island (about one third of the total) spend more than a third of their total income on housing costs. It is this harsh reality that prompted a $65 million bond question back in March – which was thankfully approved by voters overwhelmingly. President Biden’s American Rescue Plan included $23 million for the state’s most cost-burdened communities (as well as a little bit spread around elsewhere) to address the issue as well.

Now it is up to legislators and housing advocates to steer policy, taxpayer dollars and federal aid in the right direction. Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi has been vocal about prioritizing the housing issue in Rhode Island – as has newly-approved Lt. Governor Sabina Matos.

There are a flurry of bills working through the House and Senate – such as the establishment of a deputy secretary of commerce and housing; the creation of legislative commissions to study existing affordable housing laws and how land should be utilized and developed with housing in mind; preventing discrimination against those receiving government assistance to pay for rent; extending tax exemptions for affordable housing developments; and allowing “tiny houses” to be constructed or recategorized as affordable housing.

The “tiny house” legislation will likely receive a lot of buzz for its eccentricity, but no one bill will tackle the affordable housing issue. This must be the constant focus of many different people throughout the public and private sector. The heart of the problem lies in complex issues without clear political consensus – such as how high the minimum wage should be set.

We wholeheartedly support these legislative endeavors and the calls of affordable housing advocates for a dedicated, annual funding stream to construct more affordable housing each year. We are pleased that Governor McKee has included such a funding stream in his budget and hope it won’t be sacrificed as a necessary evil during the budget balancing process.

A lack of clean, safe and affordable housing will not go away on its own. The vast majority of Rhode Island’s homes are old and unaffordable. Building more affordable housing is good for the economy and good for Rhode Islanders who need it. The time is now, so let’s get going.

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