Five Questions With: Brenda Clement

BRENDA CLEMENT is the director of HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University. / PBN FILE PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY

Brenda Clement is the director of HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University, and recently completed a nine-year term on the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Its report on rental affordability, released Wednesday, found a persistent lack of affordable options in apartments for Rhode Islanders of low or moderate incomes.

PBN: You’ve been immersed in affordable housing issues for years. What is new in this report?

CLEMENT: Unfortunately, nothing new. This has been a persistent problem. The new news is that Rhode Island’s rank has actually improved. We have consistently been in the top 10 [for worst affordability] and now we’re in the top 20. But that’s not necessarily good news. All that means is that affordability issues have spread. In terms of number of people who are cost-burdened, the number of people who have been priced out of the market, none of that has changed. Our ranking has changed because unaffordability has grown.

PBN: The report finds there is an economic incentive for private developers to build at the higher end. What can be done to encourage more market-rate construction for people who can’t afford more, or encourage landlords to offer their apartments at market rates?

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CLEMENT: There are a number of tools we can explore. We released a report a few weeks ago around …. gentrification and displacement issues in Providence. Some of the policy recommendations in that report talk about inclusionary zoning tools, looking at linkage fees and other ways to encourage the private market to be more engaged and involved in this.

But also trying to look holistically about how we put the vacant and abandoned lots back to use here in the city, encourage some reasonable density in neighborhoods and make the local zoning ordinances work to do that. Those are challenging. The irony is a lot of what we consider iconic New England villages and development patterns, [such as] a Wickford Village, a Pawtuxet Village, a lot of those things can’t be rebuilt under current zoning ordinances.

PBN: Is that because they’re too dense?

CLEMENT: Partly they’re tear-downs, partly there is new parking requirements, partly because of lot size, a combination of different things. That’s what we all say we like about New England and the reality is we can’t continue to do that.

PBN: How do you counter a public pushback for more density, which seems to happen a lot in communities?

CLEMENT: In some cases, we better address what are realistic concerns around parking or loss of open space or other things, but … sometimes it might make sense for a city if we’re going to continue to grow or develop. … What we find with affordable housing development is it has no impact on the housing values around it. And often times, when it puts a vacant and abandoned building back on the tax rolls, it stabilizes or increases the tax value in those communities. Density doesn’t mean a big ugly block of buildings.

PBN: Was there anything in the report that you found encouraging?

CLEMENT: No. The particular highlights, that of the 10 fastest-growing jobs in Rhode Island, only three of those 10 actually make a [living] housing wage. Around the downtown, it’s great to see all the development going on, but most of those cranes in the sky are for hotels. Many of those jobs are not going to be $80,000-a-year jobs. I’m concerned about where the people working in those hotels are going to live.

Mary MacDonald is a staff writer for the PBN. Contact her at macdonald@pbn.com.