Five Questions With: Brenda Clement

Brenda Clement is the head of HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University, a clearing house of information furthering the conversation around housing affordability and availability, which recently released its 2021 Housing Fact Book. The document put a spotlight on health risks posed by the state’s aging housing stock and demonstrated housing’s key role in health and well-being.

The organization worked with the R.I. Department of Health to examine health factors and demographic data in an attempt to focus the housing discussion on ensuring economic opportunities for all Rhode Islanders regardless of their demographics.

PBN: What was your biggest takeaway from the findings of the 2021 Housing Fact Book released recently by HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University?

CLEMENT: The biggest takeaway for me is that for the first time since the Housing Fact Book began, there are zero communities in Rhode Island where the median household income of $67,167 can afford to buy a home.

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Owning a home can provide long-term economic security. Black and Latino homeownership rates are already well below white homeownership rates in our state. We cannot allow these disparities to continue to grow. We must increase ownership opportunities across the state.

PBN: What is going on with American Rescue Plan Act funding when it comes to housing in Rhode Island, and how should these funds be used to improve the housing situation in the state?

CLEMENT: In partnership with our housing colleagues at the Homes RI coalition, a series of recommendations were sent to the General Assembly and governor regarding how to invest the American Rescue Plan Act funds. We were pleased that our recommendations were in line with the recently released Rhode Island Foundation “Make It Happen: Investing in Rhode Island’s Future” report, which included a rigorous policy analysis by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council and Economic Progress Institute.

Homes RI recommends spending $500 million to address both immediate and long-term needs to produce, protect and preserve affordable housing. That is a big number, but when you consider that over one-third of Rhode Islanders are cost-burdened, and that the fastest-growing jobs in our state do not pay a wage that can afford the average housing cost, this investment into housing is critical toward our economic growth and recovery.

PBN: How big of a problem is a lack of affordable housing in Rhode Island and what kind of impact does that have on our economy?

CLEMENT: It could not be more evident than during this global pandemic that home is the foundation of health, economic and community well-being. It is impossible to shelter in place when you have no home; or practice social distancing when you live in overcrowded or unsafe housing; or participate in remote learning when your family is at risk of eviction or foreclosure of your home.

These are not new problems for Rhode Island, but the past year has shown that increasing the supply of affordable housing is critical to address both health and economic disparities.

PBN: How do you expect the housing market in Rhode Island to change in the years to come?

CLEMENT: Hopefully with an infusion of federal and state dollars, we will see a big increase in building new homes either through new construction or rehabbing or repurposing existing buildings. Local municipalities are critical partners to accomplish this and are key to identifying sites to develop.

Not only do we need to increase the supply of housing, but we also need to link housing to job and transportation centers and to address long-standing infrastructure needs. Our housing stock is some of the oldest in the country, and we have an opportunity to not only increase the supply, but to make it safe so that they are assets to a community for a long time.

PBN: What kind of action would you recommend elected leaders take to address housing problems in Rhode Island, aside from the ARPA funding? What can be done? What needs to change?

CLEMENT: We were pleased that the governor included housing in his recommendations to spend 10% of the ARPA funds to address some shorter-term housing challenges. It is a start, but there are immediate housing issues that must be addressed.

The number of unsheltered adults increased 68% from 2020-2021. There is a waitlist for shelter beds throughout the state. While our long-term goal is to move from a shelter-based system to a housing-based system, we must make sure that all Rhode Islanders have a roof over their head, especially with winter approaching, while we work to increase the housing supply. Now is the time to make Rhode Island a place where all residents can live in safe, healthy, affordable homes in thriving communities.

Marc Larocque is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Larocque@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter @LaRockPBN.