OP-ED

Use American Rescue Act funds to address affordable housing crisis

By SEN. MEGHAN KALLMAN and REP. JUNE SPEAKMAN
Posted 10/6/21

By SEN. MEGHAN KALLMAN and REP. JUNE SPEAKMAN Rhode Island is facing a housing emergency. We have been for years. And now we have an extraordinary opportunity to address it. With $1.1 billion in federal stimulus funding available for Rhode Island to

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OP-ED

Use American Rescue Act funds to address affordable housing crisis

Posted

Rhode Island is facing a housing emergency. We have been for years. And now we have an extraordinary opportunity to address it. With $1.1 billion in federal stimulus funding available for Rhode Island to invest in catalytic solutions, we unite with local housing advocates to call for the investment of $500 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds to help develop the housing we need in the Ocean State.

National data show that Rhode Island is short nearly 22,000 rental homes for low-income renters. Only three of our 39 cities and towns have rentals that a minimum wage worker can afford – if they work 80 hours a week. Buying a home is out of reach as well. The Rhode Island Association of Realtors reports the median sales price for a single-family house here recently reached a new peak of $390,000 – that’s 17.1% higher than a year ago.

Federal emergency rental assistance has afforded a safety net for many tenants who are vulnerable to eviction. However, rental assistance is designed primarily to help those who already have homes. And there simply are not enough units. As The Providence Journal reported Sept. 26, Rhode Island is near the bottom nationally for per capita new housing units permitted every year from 2004 through 2020. With scant development and nearly a 100% rental occupancy rate, Rhode Islanders who are displaced from housing often have nowhere to go.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated housing insecurity, especially for low-income families and people of color. Shelters are beyond capacity, and people are sleeping in outdoor encampments or their cars. As winter approaches, access to shelters can be the difference between life and death. We must increase shelter capacity as a short-term solution, but move toward permanent supportive housing.

Advocates across Rhode Island have collaborated to propose investments of $500 million for housing out of the $1.1 billion in ARPA funds allocated to the Ocean State. We wholeheartedly endorse this proposal, and are excited to work with our legislative colleagues to bring housing to the fore of our ARPA focus. Rhode Island must equitably invest in safe, healthy, affordable homes for all, and particularly redress the harm that decades of discriminatory housing policies have wrought upon communities of color and low-income communities.

We support investing $350 million to produce, protect and preserve safe, decent, affordable homes throughout the state by building 1,800 new deed-restricted units for low-income households; protecting and preserving at least 700 existing affordable homes; and decreasing disparate homeownership rates between communities of color and white communities through down-payment assistance and related programs.

A $60 million investment will help remove barriers to housing and promote housing stability with a goal of achieving “functional zero” homelessness in Rhode Island, meaning homelessness would be rare, brief and non-recurring.

Finally, $90 million will support municipalities and the state in providing safe, healthy homes as they update zoning and planning infrastructure to shorten the housing development process, expand staff capacity at state and municipal agencies, and capitalize a forgivable loan fund to remedy housing code violations.

The time is now to produce, protect and preserve our housing stock and meet the needs of our most vulnerable communities. As the General Assembly works to determine the most advantageous use of these funds, we will strongly advocate that we seize this generational opportunity to invest wisely and support our state’s economic recovery, health and well being through housing.

Sen. Meghan Kallman (D-Dist. 15, Pawtucket, North Providence) and Rep. June Speakman (D-Dist. 68, Bristol, Warren) were the sponsors of legislation to establish a dedicated stream of funding for affordable housing in Rhode Island.

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