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R.I. wants to borrow $65m for affordable housing. Advocates say it’s a start, but not a solution

Question No. 3 in next week’s special election offers s short-term fix, but long-term housing issues remain in the Ocean State

Wendy Thomas stands near in her Section 8 apartment in Providence on Wednesday afternoon. For many years, Thomas has experienced housing insecurity due to Rhode Island's underinvestment in affordable housing. Thomas is hopeful that voter-approved borrowing will pass.
Wendy Thomas stands near in her Section 8 apartment in Providence on Wednesday afternoon. For many years, Thomas has experienced housing insecurity due to Rhode Island's underinvestment in affordable housing. Thomas is hopeful that voter-approved borrowing will pass.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Wendy Thomas lives in an apartment by Washington and Dean streets, right near the police and fire stations.

The fire trucks are usually careful about leaving their lights and sirens off when they drive by late at night, but not always. Thomas, who is 61 and lives on Social Security disability in a supportive housing development, would like more space than she currently has in her small studio, where a desk, table, a bed and a futon take up about half the floorspace.

The problem — and it’s a big one — is the lack of affordable housing in Rhode Island.

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“The housing is just not available,” Thomas said. “And it’s not affordable, at all.”

Wendy Thomas sits in her Section 8 apartment in Providence on Wednesday afternoon. Unlike other states in New England, Rhode Island still doesn't have a dedicated stream of funding for affordable housing.
Wendy Thomas sits in her Section 8 apartment in Providence on Wednesday afternoon. Unlike other states in New England, Rhode Island still doesn't have a dedicated stream of funding for affordable housing.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

It’s been an issue in Rhode Island for many years, but it’s only gotten worse, according to Thomas, who has been homeless in the past and has now become an activist on issues like housing, poverty and transit affordability.

A low-key special election on March 2 could help, according to housing advocates: On Tuesday, voters around Rhode Island will go to the polls (mail-in balloting and early voting is also available) to approve a few different state borrowing proposals. One of the questions, No. 3, will ask if they want the state to borrow $65 million for affordable housing and community development. The money would fund things like low-income rental developments, new homes to sell to working-class people, and renovations for abandoned properties.

These questions usually pass without much fuss. There have been three affordable housing ballot questions since 2006, all of them OK’ed by Rhode Island voters. This one will be the biggest yet by dollar amount after Governor Gina Raimondo upped the amount of the request in the midst of the pandemic.

But the one-time windfall will only treat the symptoms, not cure the disease, according to housing advocates.

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“Clearly, a bond is not a sustainable or effective solution to increasing housing capacity in the state long-term,” said Caitlin Frumerie, the executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless.

According to Frumerie and other housing advocates, Rhode Island is the only state in New England not to have a dedicated fund for affordable housing as part of the budget. Raimondo, who is awaiting confirmation as President Joe Biden’s commerce secretary, has proposed making one through a tax hike on property sales over $500,000.

The coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into longer-range budget priorities, and the permanent funding didn’t pass the General Assembly. Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee hasn’t unveiled specifics on his budget proposal yet.

“There isn’t enough housing in the state,” Frumerie said. “What we have is often overpriced and outdated. I think every Rhode Islander can relate to the struggle to find a decent home that you don’t have to pay an arm and leg for.”

Now imagine, Frumerie said, if you made the average renter’s salary in Rhode Island — $34,255 per year. Or the amount that a family experiencing homelessness makes — a quarter of them make between $6,000 to $12,000 annually.

“How do you afford a place to live?” Frumerie said. “In short, you don’t. Which is why we have scores of Rhode Islanders on any given night living outside as we speak.”

The situation in Rhode Island makes it an outlier in New England. Not in a good way.

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Right now, Massachusetts spends about $101 per capita on housing production, while Connecticut spends about $96 per capita, according to Brenda Clement, the director of HousingWorks RI, a group that does research and advocacy for affordable housing

Rhode Island spends $22 per capita — and that’s if you include money from the last round of affordable housing borrowing, in 2016. If the new borrowing for affordable housing isn’t approved on Tuesday, Rhode Island’s funding for housing would dip to about $5 per capita.

“If voters don’t approve things next week, we’re way down in the basement,” Clement said. “That’s a real problem.”

The tight housing market is an issue for just about everyone in Rhode Island. The emergence of remote work through the pandemic and rock-bottom interest rates have created a great market for sellers in Rhode Island. Not so much for buyers, renters, those looking to downsize, or people just trying to avoid homelessness.

“We simply have not been creating enough housing in Rhode Island, and in the country, and particularly at the low-income level,” said Clement, a group that does research and advocacy for affordable housing and whose advisory board includes builders, real estate industry figures and government representatives.

The city of Providence’s housing market is, right now, “very tight” for people trying to rent or buy, Mayor Jorge Elorza said. The city is putting together a long-range “anti-displacement” program, and is also on the way to banning “source of income” discrimination, meaning landlords couldn’t turn away tenants just because of how they’re paying the rent — like using Social Security disability or housing vouchers.

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“Your city is hot, but it’s pushing out the very people who made it hot — the people who live there, who raised their kids there,” Elorza.

The situation leaves people like Wendy Thomas struggling to find the right place. She has faced with housing insecurity for some time, beset by health problems, including multiple heart attacks, and bad luck, including two fires.

In a few months she may be eligible for certain senior housing opportunities. Right now she spends a third of her income, from Social Security disability, for her studio. Part of the reason she wants more space is because she’s a crafter — she can make “anything out of anything that you can buy at the Dollar Tree.” Also, her current kitchen is so small she can’t make her favorite dish, which is lasagna.

She is grateful for what she has now, but is looking to better herself.

“I consider myself lucky I have a roof over my head,” she said. “I really, really do. But this is not the proper place for me.”


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.