Housing leaders: Excessive red tape, labor shortage slowing new construction in R.I.

THE BOWDOIN STREET ROWHOUSE in Providence awaits final roof work after construction on March 3. The eight modular units of affordable housing were built by the nonprofit ONE Neighborhood Builders for $2.2 million. / COURTESY STEPHEN IDE OF ONE NEIGHBORHOOD BUILDERS

A recent report naming Rhode Island the slowest state in the nation in erecting new housing illustrates a decades-old problem with widely varying construction requirements across the state and a lingering labor shortage in the industry, construction and housing industry leaders say.

The report by Boutique Home Plans noted that cities and towns in Rhode Island had only issued 1.27 residential building permits per 1,000 residents in 2021, the lowest rate nationwide, according to U.S. Census data.

By comparison, Utah topped the list with 11.94 permits per 1,000 residents in 2021.

It’s a finding that comes as no surprise to housing, real estate and construction leaders in Rhode Island who have long grappled with what they describe as excessive red tape that stymies new housing production, particularly for homes that would be affordable for low- and middle-income residents.

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Restrictive zoning restrictions, including some that require an excessive amount of parking and large minimum lot sizes, can make it difficult for developers to make projects financially feasible, says Stephen Antoni, chairperson of the Rhode Island Association of Realtors’ government affairs committee.

He says a wide and inconsistent range of zoning and planning policies across cities and towns are also problematic.

“The fact that we’re a conglomeration of 39 cities and towns with 39 different governments and 39 different ways of doing things certainly doesn’t make the process user-friendly,” Antoni said. “Especially if someone is building from town to town, it seems like the regulations aren’t necessarily logical and don’t really follow a timeline that would be conducive to helping us produce more homes.”

While much of New England shares these issues – including Connecticut, which was second slowest in 2021 with 1.29 permits per 1,000 residents – other regions tend to make more use of countywide or statewide regulations, Antoni says, which often simplifies the construction process.

The burdens of restrictive zoning and a lack of funding for new housing have taken a toll, says Brenda Clement, director of HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University.

“We’ve been underproducing in Rhode Island for a long time at all income levels,” Clement said. “But the gap for people at the lowest income is the biggest.”

Further complicating this issue, the state’s construction sector barely has the workforce needed to keep up with the current pace of construction, says John Marcantonio, CEO of the Rhode Island Builders Association.

For the construction industry, “our specific problem is not having the workforce to actually build the number of units people are talking about,” Marcantonio said.

The shortage predates the pandemic by at least 20 years, Marcantonio says, owing to a shifting societal perception that promoted college over going into the trades.

Marcantonio says that interest in the trades has been picking up in recent years, with more adult training programs also becoming available, but rebuilding the construction workforce will take time.

Also giving Marcantonio hope: he believes the state’s attitude is beginning to shift, with newer developments such as the appointment of a “housing czar” and the creation of the Special Commission on Land Use.

Clement also sees reason for optimism that the construction of new, affordable housing will pick up. She points to the fiscal 2023 state budget, which allocates $80 million toward creating more than 875 housing units across the state, with more than 800 set aside as affordable units.

But much of the state-directed funding draws from one-time federal allocations, Clement says, and state leaders still need to develop a long-term plan to address the housing shortage.

The new funding “is wonderful, and we’ll take it,” Clement said. “But we still need to continue to invest in the state for the development of housing.”

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