Civic Leadership

Housing is health, housing is hope

30 years of fighting for affordable housing in RI

The struggle to find housing that everyday Rhode Islanders can afford is not new. Thirty years ago, Rhode Island was coming off its first big leap in real estate prices, when the median price of a single family home doubled between 1986 to 1989. Suddenly, policy makers started to see the reality that many had been living for years: housing was unaffordable to the average Rhode Islander. Seeing the scope of the problem, the Rhode Island Foundation responded with its first big foray into the housing sector: helping bring the national organization Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) to Rhode Island in 1991.

“The Foundation stepped up early with a leadership grant that set the stage, helping bring LISC and its much needed national resources to Rhode Island,” remembers Barbara Fields, LISC-RI’s original executive director. During Fields’ 20-year tenure, LISC provided crucial support for the building of 6,500 affordable homes for Rhode Island families.

“Nobody believed community development corporations could build at scale, but when they began constructing dozens and then hundreds of homes, heads turned. Those early wins sparked a change and brought homes, jobs, and renewed pride to neighborhoods across the state,” says Fields.

Soon, the Foundation was investing in LISC’s Neighborhood Development Fund, which helped build the capacity of nonprofits like the Woonsocket Neighborhood Development Corporation (WNDC). Long-time Executive Director Joe Garlick remembers the early days.

“By the mid-1990s, Woonsocket was suffering. The economic disruption caused by the state’s credit union bust and other national bank failures had caused massive housing abandonment and neighborhood disinvestment,” he explains.

By the end of that decade, WNDC–now called NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley–had attracted millions of dollars in private and public sector investment to breathe new life into the Constitution Hill neighborhood, which had more abandoned multifamily properties than any other section of the city. The centerpiece was rehabbing 26 of those derelict buildings into 90 affordable apartments.

Troubled neighborhoods all over Rhode Island were being transformed by the catalyst of affordable housing. Nonprofits like Church Community Housing Corporation in Newport, West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation in Providence, and Valley Affordable Housing Corporation in Cumberland were pioneers in this crucial work.

Rhode Island’s production of new homes had fallen precipitously; largely as a result of high land and construction costs, and a demanding permitting process. In 1986, developers built 7,274 units.

But by 2004, the number of authorized building permits had fallen to 2,532. The growing imbalance between housing supply and demand had caused prices to rise six times faster than incomes since 1998. And the number of clients at homeless shelters increased more than 25% between 2002 and 2004.

That’s when the Rhode Island Foundation took an unprecedented step: investing in housing advocacy together with Rhode Island Housing and the United Way. The goal of the original HousingWorks campaign was passage of a $50 million bond for affordable housing—the first such bond in state history.

Brenda Clement, then the executive director of the Housing Network, which represents many of the state’s community development corporations, remembers the campaign brought new voices to the table to convince legislative leaders to put a housing bond on the November ballot and then conduct a statewide advertising campaign in support of it.

“We needed to reposition affordable housing as something other than ‘the right thing to do.’ Housing advocates have always said that the ‘path to economic opportunity begins at your front door,’ so the campaign focused on the importance of housing to our state’s economic health and growth,” she says.

That 2006 bond passed with 66% of the vote. Within a few years, a second bond passed and then a third. But, housing creation still wasn’t keeping pace with demand. By 2014, new residential building permits had fallen to just 952. Rhode Island ranked last nationally. Not surprisingly, the average renter could not comfortably afford the average two-bedroom apartment in any of the state's cities and towns.

While the affordability gap persisted, one thing was changing. The Foundation began to focus on housing as a tool to address health and economic security. The work included substantial investments in innovative housing programs like Housing First RI, which combines stable, affordable apartments and case management to address the underlying causes of homelessness.

“We help people who have been homeless turn their lives around by removing barriers to getting a place to live, helping them acclimate to tenancy, and assisting them in achieving their goal of stability and independence,” explains Thrive Behavioral Health CEO Dan Kubas-Meyer.

The new approaches are coupled with continued support for long-time partners like LISC-RI, the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness, and HousingWorks RI. The Foundation also has a seat on the Rhode Island General Assembly’s special legislative commission to study the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act; the commission is looking into barriers to affordable housing creation and will identify ways to help cities and towns meet their obligations under the Act.

Furthermore, Rhode Island’s $1.1 billion share of the federal American Rescue Plan Act funding represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move the needle. In fact, the Foundation’s “Make It Happen: Investing for Rhode Island’s Future” report recommends that more money be spent on housing—$405 million—than any other use.

“As a state, we’ve got to produce more housing. Let’s start at the lower income levels, but there is a shortage at almost every level,” says Foundation President and CEO Neil D. Steinberg. “It’s way past time to just do it.”