PROVIDENCE — During his seven-year tenure, former Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello made the elimination of car taxes his priority. This year, while the car tax phaseout continues, new House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi is putting the power of his position behind a new priority: housing.
Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, has introduced a package of seven housing bills, and some are starting to become law.
On April 19, Governor Daniel J. McKee signed a bill into law prohibiting landlords from refusing to rent to people with government housing vouchers. Other bills would create a high-level “housing czar” position within state government and allow cities and towns to count “tiny homes” as affordable housing.
In an interview, Shekarchi said housing isn’t just his priority; he said many legislators are focused on this issue because Rhode Island’s housing situation is so dire.
“We clearly have reached a crisis,” Shekarchi said, noting the state’s housing supply is scarce and prices are sky high. “Many colleagues think it needs to be addressed. It has been put on the back burner for far too long.”
Brenda Clement, director of HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University, said the difference between Mattiello and Shekarchi on housing issues “is like night and day.”
“The previous speaker didn’t have a lot of interest in this topic at all,” she said.
Clement said the most crucial thing Shekarchi can do is to enact a state budget that includes a dedicated funding stream for affordable housing.
In his budget proposal, McKee’s called for raising the real estate transfer tax on homes costing more than $700,000 to provide a dedicated funding stream for “affordable and workforce housing.” Former Governor Gina M. Raimondo had backed a similar proposal that would have raised taxes on homes costing more than $500,000, and Representative June S. Speakman, a Warren Democrat, has proposed a bill that includes the $500,000 threshold.
“The dedicated funding stream is critical,” Clement said. “We are one are one of the few states in the Northeast without a dedicated funding stream for affordable housing. We have been woefully behind because of that lack of investment. We have a lot of catching up to do.”
The House has not yet passed the state budget. But on Thursday, Shekarchi said, “I am supportive of an additional dedicated funding stream for housing. The final details will be resolved within the state budget.”
Providence College political science Professor Adam S. Myers said Shekarchi’s focus on housing suggests that he wants to pursue an agenda tailored to the needs of low-income and working-class Rhode Islanders. “Mattiello’s car tax phaseout, on the other hand, is much more of a squarely middle-class issue,” he said.
Shekarchi seems to be responding to the growing interest of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing in affordable housing, Myers said.
“In recent years, there has been a substantial growth of interest in – and attention to – housing policy among progressive groups nationally,” he said. “Based on what I’ve seen, it seems like something similar has been occurring locally in Rhode Island.”
The shift doesn’t appear to reflect differences in the House districts of Shekarchi and Mattiello, Myers said. In 2019, the estimated median household income was $97,024 in Mattiello’s Cranston district and $81,914 in Shekarchi’s Warwick district, while the statewide average was $68,957.
“Shekarchi might just be perceiving – either because of changes within the Democratic Party or changes he’s seen within the state as a whole – that affordable housing is a major issue for Rhode Island, in a way that Mattiello never did,” Myers said.
Shekarchi said he sees Rhode Island’s housing market being “squeezed” by outside demand. “People leaving New York City and Massachusetts are finding Rhode Island to be a very desirable place,” he said. “People are leaving the cities because they want backyard space in the pandemic, and people can now work from home.”
But Shekarchi, an attorney who focuses on zoning and land use permitting, said Rhode Island contains a lot of old mill buildings that could be rezoned for housing in cities such as Woonsocket and Providence.
He noted the House has passed bills that would create a legislative commission to study all aspects of land use, zoning, and housing, plus a commission to study the state Low and Moderate Income Housing Act.
Right now, that state law sets a goal that 10 percent of the housing stock in every city and town qualify as low- or moderate-income housing. But just six of the state’s 39 municipalities meet that threshold: Providence, Newport, Woonsocket, Central Falls, Burrillville, and Block Island, according to HouseWorks RI.
Shekarchi said he wants to figure out how more communities can meet that goal, and he wants to get local input because he realizes there’s no “one size-fits-all” solution. “Increasing the supply in Olneyville or downtown is different than changing zoning in rural Rhode Island,” he said.
After being sworn in as lieutenant governor on April 14, Sabina Matos said she plans to make housing her main area of focus, and on Thursday she said she is “thrilled” that Shekarchi is making housing his priority, too.
Matos said housing advocates have long sought a Cabinet-level housing official, and while the “housing czar” won’t be in the Cabinet, she said it’s important for state government “to make sure affordable housing is not an afterthought.”
She said it’s “very important” for Rhode Island to have a dedicated revenue stream to fund housing projects, just as other states such as Massachusetts do. She said she would like to see Rhode Island use federal stimulus funds for affordable housing, and she’d like to see more energy efficient housing constructed so that people won’t have to spend so much on utility costs.
Matos, a Democratic former Providence City Council president, said the shortage of affordable housing has been evident for years, but the pandemic made more people aware of how big a problem it is and how it tied to health. While affordable housing can face opposition in the suburbs, she said officials can help overcome those concerns by showing that there are people within those communities who are struggling to afford housing.
Clement said affordable housing initiatives can face opposition because of preconceptions about what those homes look like. “But there are many great examples in Rhode Island of affordable housing that you would be very happy to have in your community,” she said.
Also, Clement said, “There’s definitely an undercurrent of classism and racism. And some communities are looking at their budgets and saying they can’t afford more infrastructure or more schools.”
But the governor’s budget proposal includes a provision, tailored after a Massachusetts law, that would give communities a bump in school aid if they end up with more students in their schools because of affordable housing projects, Clement said.
Also, she noted that on March 2, voters approved a $65 million housing bond, and the state could receive an influx of funding from the federal infrastructure bill.
So while the Rhode Island housing situation is grim, Clement said she is encouraged to see political will and public funding emerging to address the crisis.
“We are seeing some lights and glimmers of hope at the end of what has been a surreal year,” she said. “We are at a turning point.”