Five Questions With: Cortney Nicolato

Cortney Nicolato is the CEO and president of United Way of Rhode Island. On March 2, the affordable-housing bond was passed overwhelmingly by state voters, paving the way for increased affordable housing in the state.

Nicolato spoke with Providence Business News about affordable housing, where it’s needed the most and how much affordable housing can be increased by year’s end.

PBN: With the bond being passed overwhelmingly, is that a significant sign that the public in Rhode Island sees affordable housing as a major need?

NICOLATO: Looking at the results from March 2, I don’t think there’s any question that the majority of Rhode Islanders see our state as having a significant housing crisis on its hands. The overall lack of affordable-housing options impacts households in every corner of the state, and across nearly the entire income spectrum.

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Prior to the pandemic, close to 50% of Rhode Island households were housing cost-burdened, meaning they were spending more than 30% of their income to keep a roof over their head. These are families, individuals and seniors that span from low-income to middle-income, and who now have been hit the hardest by the downturn created by COVID-19.

The cost of housing in Rhode Island has risen at a pace far greater than incomes, and with our state’s lack of inventory, people are faced with scarce options, frequently renting or buying above the affordable threshold.

The bond money will be a much-needed investment in long-term stabilization through the development of affordable housing, increasing every Rhode Islander’s chance to have safe, healthy, stable housing.

PBN: Which cities and/or towns are most in need of affordable housing?

NICOLATO: According to the most recent numbers from HousingWorks RI, Central Falls is the only community [in] our state where a household earning a median income of $63,000 can afford to own a home. And for median income renter households, there are no affordable units in any community. Every city and town in Rhode Island needs affordable housing immediately, particularly as demand for accessible rental units and starter homes continues to grow in every corner of the state.

At the municipal level, strategic planning for community stabilization needs to include affordable-housing development that fits within the unique fabric of each community. For many of our communities, the development of affordable housing will support older residents in aging safely in [the] community, and offer greater options for younger residents and families.

While the bond investments support long-term stabilization, we know the need is urgent and we support policies to reduce barriers to developing affordable housing for low-income Rhode Islanders.

PBN: House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi recently introduced legislation to help further the push for affordable housing. How closely will United Way work with him to help make more such housing a reality in the state?

NICOLATO: Speaker Shekarchi is a long-time housing advocate. We are actively working with him and his team to create policy that moves Rhode Island forward to meet the needs created by the significant shortage of housing in the state. Our focus is to provide Rhode Island the long-term, sustainable mix of funding that addresses the varied needs of all Rhode Islanders – at all levels of income.

We are focused especially at eliminating barriers for households with Section 8 vouchers or other forms of lawful sources of income. We are incredibly thankful to the speaker for moving with Rep. Anastasia Williams, D-Providence, to pass [House Bill] 5257, the Source of Income legislation, this year.

PBN: What other organizations will United Way work with to help advance and create more affordable housing in the state?

NICOLATO: In partnership with the Homes RI coalition, its members and supporters, United Way seeks to expand our base to include more members from the business community, both small and large, and from additional municipalities outside of our core cities. And, of course, we want greater representation from those who understand this issue better than anyone else … the people of Rhode Island. It is absolutely vital for everyone to understand the issue of housing insecurity undermines efforts to advance educational attainment and improve health outcomes throughout the state.

We seek to work across sectors to advance policies that increase housing security across our state, and therefore position Rhode Island to thrive.

PBN: How much affordable housing do you feel can be increased by the end of 2021?

NICOLATO: Our focus goes beyond the number of units created this year. Through the last affordable-housing bond passed in 2016, Rhode Island has invested roughly $11 million annually. This investment has created nearly 1,300 units of safe, affordable and healthy housing in more than 30 of our communities. But, we need to do more – we’ve built too few homes for far too long. We’re working with the governor [Daniel J. McKee] and the R.I. General Assembly to [approve] substantive legislation to ensure affordable housing is produced this year, and every year.

To really impact Rhode Island’s lack of inventory, we need strategic development investments from both public and private partners. These investments must support both the creation of new units and the rehabilitation of existing ones.

And we need cooperation across state and municipal governance to reduce barriers to development. With the high cost of development and limited land for growth, creativity is needed to place new units in unconventional places. Fortunately, we see this already happening in parts of the state with the growing interest in accessory dwelling units, the building of small homes, and mixed-use zoning overlays in commercial corridors.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.