Speaker: Housing will be 'top priority'

Package of seven bills in spotlight as advocates applaud affordability push

Posted 3/3/21

By DANIEL KITTREDGE Addressing the state's shortage of affordable housing will be a top priority of the House of Representatives, Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick) announced Monday, with a focus on seven pieces of legislation currently

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Speaker: Housing will be 'top priority'

Package of seven bills in spotlight as advocates applaud affordability push


Addressing the state’s shortage of affordable housing will be a top priority of the House of Representatives, Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick) announced Monday, with a focus on seven pieces of legislation currently being considered by lawmakers.

“It shouldn’t come as a secret to anybody that Rhode Island is in the middle of a housing crisis … Our affordable housing in Rhode Island is not affordable, and it’s in very short supply,” the speaker said during a largely virtual State House press conference held Monday afternoon, held ahead of the start of the week’s legislative committee meetings.

He cited statistics from HousingWorksRI indicating that there are only three Rhode Island communities in which a household with an income of $50,000 can afford a market-rate two-bedroom apartment – and no cities or towns in which a household income of $34,255 is sufficient for such a rental.

Shekarchi also framed addressing the housing situation as a “key component” of the state’s approach to economic recovery, particularly when it comes to attracting business to Rhode Island.

In a subsequent statement, the speaker added: “Long before the COVID-19 pandemic reached us, Rhode Island was facing a profound housing crisis. Our housing is not affordable, in short supply, and our housing stock is aging and often not in safe, livable condition. Rents are out of reach for average-income families, and those making less than that face enormous challenges finding, let alone paying for an apartment. Rhode Island urgently needs action to meet the housing demands of our population.”

During Monday’s event, Shekarchi was flanked by a number of his masked and distanced House colleagues as the proceedings streamed via Capitol TV. Several advocates participated remotely to express their support for the new legislative push.

One of the bills that took center stage Monday concerns an issue that has been the subject of debate in Cranston in recent months.

The legislation, sponsored by Providence Rep. Anastasia Williams, would bar landlords from making a prospective tenant’s lawful source of income – including Section 8 housing vouchers and other assistance – a factor in rental decisions. It has already passed the Senate during the current session, and a House vote on the bill was scheduled for Tuesday.

“I have every confidence the house will overwhelmingly pass this … It will have a dramatic impact,” Shekarchi said Monday.

Cranston’s City Council passed an ordinance to prohibit source of income discrimination late last year. It was vetoed by Mayor Allan Fung before he left office, however, and the council was unable to muster the votes needed to override the veto. Recently, however, the council unanimously approved a resolution supportive of the legislation currently before the General Assembly.

Another part of the legislative package, sponsored by Shekarchi, would establish a new deputy secretary of commerce and housing position within the Executive Office of Commerce. On Monday, the speaker said the position – which would be filled by the incoming McKee administration – will serve as a “housing champion, a housing czar, if you will.”

“Massachusetts does it with a great amount of success, and it’s about time Rhode Island did it as well,” he said.

Additionally, Shekarchi has sponsored legislation that would “create a legislative commission to study all aspects of land use, preservation, development, production, regulation, zoning, housing and the environment.” The commission would be charged with making recommendations “to enable the state to ensure and promote land use that allows for sustainable and equitable economic growth in support of efforts to achieve the state’s affordable housing goals.”

On Monday, Shekarchi said: “We have not looked at our land-use laws in Rhode Island in over 30 years, and the time has come now.” He pledged to work collaboratively with cities and towns on the land use review.

Other legislation in the package highlighted Monday includes Rep. June Speakman’s bill that would create a “special legislative commission to study the Rhode Island Low and Moderate Income Housing Act”; Rep. John Edwards’s bill seeking to extend a tax exemption provided for affordable housing developments until they are issued certificates of occupancy; Rep. Mia Ackerman’s bill “to require towns and cities to allow tiny homes to be used as accessory dwelling units and to be counted as affordable housing”; and a proposal from Deputy Speaker Charlene Lima of Cranston that would ease quorum requirements for local planning and zoning boards.

Shekarchi also recognized Rep. Brandon Potter (D-Dist. 16, Cranston), who was in attendance, during his remarks Monday.

Shekarchi urged voters to support Question 3 on Tuesday’s special election ballot, which seeks authority to borrow $65 million to support affordable housing development. He highlighted $200 million in housing-related aid – including funding for rental and mortgage assistance – that will come to Rhode Island as a result of the most recent federal stimulus bill, with hopes that more could be on the way.

Moving forward, he added: “I’m committed to work with anybody and everybody … anybody who has interest in housing, the place is here. We want to hear your ideas. We want to work collaboratively with you.”

Among the advocates who spoke during Monday’s event were Pawtucket Housing Authority Executive Director Paula McFarland; One Neighborhood Builders Executive Director Jennifer Hawkins; Rhode Island Builders Association President Carol O’Donnell and Executive Director John Marcantonio; Rhode Island Realtors Association Government Affairs Director David Salvator; Housing Network of Rhode Island Director of Programs Melina Lodge; United Way of Rhode Island President and CEO Cortney Nicolato; Crossroads Rhode Island President and CEO Karen Santilli; Westbay Community Action President and CEO Paul Salera; and HousingWorksRI Director Brenda Clement.

“We need a proactive and coordinated strategy that addresses our housing shortage … We’re looking forward to standing shoulder to shoulder with you through this process,” Salvator said.

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