Special commission highlights legislation aimed at addressing state’s affordable housing crisis

A SPECIAL LEGISLATIVE HOUSE COMMISSION tasked with examining affordable housing in Rhode Island highlighted a package of 11 pieces of legislation on Thursday aimed at addressing the state’s affordable housing crisis./PBN FILE PHOTO/MARY MACDONALD

PROVIDENCE – A legislative commission tasked with examining affordable housing in Rhode Island highlighted a package of 11 pieces of legislation Thursday aimed at addressing the state’s affordable housing crisis.

The legislation, which was introduced in the House earlier in the week, calls for a range of housing programs, including the streamlining of housing development, repurposing existing buildings, providing complete and timely information, and helping municipalities meet their affordable housing goals.

The special House commission has been studying barriers to affordable housing and trying to identify ways to help municipalities meet their obligations under the Low- and Moderate-Income Housing Act to ensure at least 10% of their housing stock qualifies as affordable.

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, D-Warwick, and Rep. June S. Speakman, D-Warren, chairwoman of the Special Legislative Commission studying the act, discussed the package during a briefing in the House lounge at the Statehouse on Thursday.

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“Rhode Island needs more housing but getting there isn’t just about building more homes,” said Shekarchi. “We need to look at the myriad rules and regulations that make building a challenge, streamline efforts so that good work isn’t happening in a vacuum, and hold policy-makers accountable.”

Speakman said the legislation was developed with the input of policy experts, planning officials, developers and housing advocates.

“What we have learned is that, while we are facing a broad array of challenges, including our governmental structures and the magnitude of the demand, we have the expertise in this state to develop equitable, sustainable solutions to our housing crisis,” she said. “I look forward to the work ahead, because I’m confident that with leadership, collaboration and flexibility, we can develop the safe, comfortable, affordable, environmentally sound housing that Rhode Islanders should have.”

Speakman is sponsoring a comprehensive bill that updates the Low- and Moderate-Income Housing Act, streamlining procedure for approval. It also revises the State Housing Appeals Board appeal procedure and the board’s composition, establishes a monitoring program that is overseen by the R.I. Housing Resources Commission to ensure that municipally subsidized developments remain affordable housing.

The special House commission has been meeting biweekly since July to identify ways the state can meet its affordable housing needs. The legislative package is the first generated through the work of the commission, which is expected to continue its exploration of housing issues for at least another year.

Brenda Clement, director of HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University, spoke during the briefing. She said that her organization is still reviewing the legislation, but is pleased that it is aimed at removing barriers that prevent affordable housing development in the state’s communities.

“These past few years have reminded us all of how critical it is to have a safe and affordable home,” she said. “Housing advocates have long said that the path to economic opportunity begins at your front door.”

Clement said the legislation, coupled with significant federal and state funding investments, will help ramp up much needed housing production in the state.

The legislation represents the second package of housing bills backed by the state’s House leaders the past two years.

Last year, the R.I. General Assembly enacted several proposals from the House’s package, including a permanent stream of affordable housing funding, another that prohibits housing discrimination against those who receive Section 8 or other housing assistance, and the creation of a deputy secretary of housing.

It is not known how the proposed legislation will be funded, but the legislative committee process could lead to amendments with budgetary requests.

On Jan. 4, the General Assembly approved $119 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding, part of Gov. Daniel J. McKee’s R.I. Rebounds program, with $29.5 million earmarked for affordable housing needs and human services.

In December, the state’s Housing Resources Commission awarded $31 million from a voter approved $50 million housing bond to support 23 affordable housing projects.

McKee proposed $250 million in ARPA funding for addressing the state’s housing needs over a six-year period in his proposed fiscal 2023 budget.

On Dec. 9, he tapped Josh Saal as the state’s newly created Deputy Secretary for Housing. McKee, and Saal, along with other state officials have been touring Rhode Island to better understand the state’s housing situation.

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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