Employee housing proposal on state’s radar for consideration by General Assembly

HOUSE SPEAKER K. JOSEPH SHEKARCHI said the General Assembly is exploring an employee housing proposal broached by Karl Wadensten, CEO and president of Richmond manufacturer VIBCO Inc. Pictured is Stanley Lessing, a VIBCO employee who has lived at home with his parents for the past three years, as renting or buying a home is too costly, and remains only a dream./PBN PHOTO/CASSIUS SHUMAN

PROVIDENCE – An employee housing proposal birthed by a local manufacturer has caught the attention of Gov. Daniel J. McKee and Rhode Island’s legislative leadership, who both say they are exploring the plan.

The proposal by Karl Wadensten, CEO and president of VIBCO Inc., a Richmond-based manufacturing company, is a company-funded, premises-based employee housing program in which employees would pay into their matching 401(k) account as a form of rent payment.

Details of how the program would work are being sketched out, but it would reward participating employees with the dollars yielded from the investment, stipulated by contract, to be used for a down payment on a single-family home.

Wadensten told the Providence Business News that 100% of the homes built on VIBCO property would be classified as affordable housing units.

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House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi said during an event held Tuesday morning by the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce that the R.I. General Assembly will be evaluating the proposal during the 2022 legislative session.

“We can explore it, and we are exploring it,” said Shekarchi. “Karl Wadensten is a friend of mine, and he told me about it yesterday. He’s a very vocal advocate, on just about every issue in Rhode Island.”

Shekarchi said Wadensten is an innovative “out-of-the-box” thinker, and the idea is being reviewed to see how it fits with the state’s plans for affordable housing.

“We would need other companies that have surplus land and the ability and the desire to build the housing, and then we could have them partner with the General Assembly,” he said, noting that the state’s new housing czar, Josh Saal, will be handling the state’s plans for addressing its housing needs.

“We’re looking at not only that proposal, but a lot of innovative, creative things that have been done throughout the country, and looking to see what we can do here in Rhode Island,” said Shekarchi.

“It’s an affordable housing crisis. It’s not a problem anymore – it’s a crisis,” he added.

Shekarchi asked that anyone with housing proposals or ideas to contact him or Saal.

Shekarchi said Housing is a priority for the state legislature, with the governor proposing $250 million for the state’s housing needs in his proposed fiscal 2023 budget.

Alana O’Hare, spokeswoman for the governor, said that while the governor has not seen the details of Wadensten’s employee housing proposal, housing is a priority for the administration.

“He believes that affordable housing and a path to homeownership are crucial for rebuilding our economy and recovering from this pandemic,” she said. “The governor submitted his fiscal year 2023 budget, which proposes an historic $250 million investment in housing, including $20 million to support workforce housing for Rhode Island families, and $50 million to help boost homeownership rates by providing $17,500 in down payment assistance to first-time homebuyers.”

McKee has said in the past that a big part of his R.I. 2030 Plan, a document for allocating the state’s American Rescue Plan Act funding for the next eight years, includes housing.

McKee will join RIHousing on Wednesday at 68 Middle St. in Pawtucket at 2 p.m. to launch a new pilot program, FirstGenHomeRI, aimed at helping to open the doors to homeownership for first-generation homebuyers.

The program will target first-generation buyers by addressing inequities and barriers to homeownership while boosting the long-term, economic outlook for families who have historically not pursued homeownership.

The program is available to Rhode Island residents currently living in specific areas of the state, and offers $25,000 for down payment and closing costs.

Cassius Shuman is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Shuman@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter @CassiusShuman.

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