Make housing a priority

There are lots of sobering statistics about skyrocketing rents and home prices, but here is the most telling. Year after year, Rhode Island ranks dead last in housing starts nationally. Our economy can’t grow if there is no place for people to live. And that affects everyone. It affects our sons and daughters entering the workforce for the first time. It affects older Rhode Islanders. It affects decisions about business relocation and expansion. It affects the most vulnerable among us. The solution is clear. We need to create more housing at all price levels.

There is a package of legislation that would help. Championed by House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, the bills tackle the housing shortage head on. As a member of the state’s Special Legislative Commission to Study the Low and Moderate Housing Act, I am aware of the cost of maintaining the status quo and the potential for economic growth that this package of bills presents. The commission has heard testimony from a multitude of experts, stakeholders, and average Rhode Islanders. This package of bills makes easing the affordability crisis a top priority for the state.

In 2021, the Foundation issued Make it Happen: Investing for Rhode Island’s Future, a set of recommendations for state leaders to consider as they decide how to spend the $1.1 billion in funding the state received from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. The recommendations were the product of six months of research, analysis, and public input. That input included approximately 400 ideas submitted by the public via email, stakeholder conversations with more than 140 people, five focus groups with Rhode Islanders from communities hardest hit by COVID and 11 nonprofit-led, community visioning sessions throughout the state. Housing was the top issue.

The stakes are high. The unsheltered live in tents and below highway overpasses. The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s most recent “Out of Reach” report found that Rhode Islanders would need to earn a minimum of $24.32 per hour – or about $50,000 a year -- to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment in 2022. Who does that leave out? Rhode Islanders in the service industry, retail workers, CNAs, entry level teachers, and others who are the foundation of our economy. The future of the American Dream is even more dire. The Rhode Island Association of Realtors reports that there were just 864 single family homes for sale in February of this year. Not surprisingly, the median sales price was $384,000. The supply of one-to-four family homes was even more constrained. There were just 147 properties for sale. The median sales price? $450,000.

Rhode Island has a supply problem. The legislative package now before the General Assembly will jump start the creation of housing for all Rhode Islanders. Now is the time to act.

Neil D. Steinberg is CEO and president of the Rhode Island Foundation.