PROVIDENCE — When Sabina Matos transitioned from president of the Providence City Council to lieutenant governor in early April, she promised to prioritize affordable housing.
She told the Globe at the time that while Providence had an abundance of high-end and luxury apartments, it was becoming harder for teachers, police officers, and other working class residents to stay in the capital city.
Since visiting all 39 cities and towns in Rhode Island, she said it’s an issue across the state, not just in Providence.
“It’s not just in the inner city. One of my biggest surprises was going to Block Island and realizing that they have a lack of affordable housing. So much so that they aren’t able to attract employees to work in their municipal government [or in the service industry] positions,” she said recently in an interview with the Globe. “They’re at the point where they have to include housing as part of their employment package.”
In recent community discussions, Matos said she knows there’s a lack of production of affordable units across the board. It was a problem she tried to tackle during her time on the Providence City Council, where she created the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The fund took 10 percent of the city’s Tax Stabilization Agreement, or TSA, program and put it toward a dedicated funding stream. The Providence Redevelopment Agency, which oversees the fund, was able to bond it, and increase the fund to $26 million, said Matos. She estimates that could pay for about 1,000 affordable housing units.
But many families she saw across the state, are “just one paycheck away from losing their home.”
One of the biggest problems Rhode Island faces, she said, is the very definition of who is considered homeless by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
HUD, which is the cabinet department that oversees public housing and community planning, has four definitions for homelessness, which include “literally homeless,” “imminent risk of homelessness,” “homeless under other Federal statutes,” and “fleeing or attempting to flee a domestic violence” situation. That criteria is broken down and used to determine if someone is eligible to receive government assistance.
“But in order for you to be considered homeless, you have to be either living on the street or you have to be in one of the shelters,” she said. “If my house burnt down and I don’t have a place to stay, but you allow me to stay on your couch, I’m technically not homeless because it’s not recognized by HUD.”
She explained that if funds are pulled together and a family experiencing homelessness is able to temporarily stay in a hotel room, they aren’t considered to be homeless by HUD either.
It’s the reason why, Matos said, she’s advocating for changes on the federal level so that “unhoused” people under a wider variety of circumstances can receive government assistance, not just those who fall under HUD’s current definition of “homelessness.”
“I’m using every opportunity I have to contact any representative from any state so I can talk about this and why we need to advocate together for changes,” she said. Most recently, she was honored by the Dominican Republic Chamber of Commerce in America for her contributions to the Dominican community in the US and scheduled a meeting with Congressman Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat, to discuss the issue.
At the end of the month, Matos will attend the Conference of Lieutenant Governors and plans to address the issue with her colleagues.
In September alone, there were 660 people living outside in Rhode Island, which does not include the number of people fleeing their homes because of domestic violence. There are waiting lists for shelters, which have long been at capacity, and the affordability aspect of housing is at a pivotal point in Rhode Island.
According to the 2021 Housing Fact Book by Housing Works R.I. at Roger Williams University, Burrillville is the only municipality where a household earning an annual income of $36,078, which is the state’s median renter income, could affordably rent an average two-bedroom apartment. And a minimum wage employee would have to work 78 hours each week to afford an average two-bedroom apartment in Rhode Island, according to a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
“We have one advantage,” said Matos. “Everyone has housing as a priority. It’s that everyone finally realizes how bad this situation is. They’re ready to come to the table and find a solution.”
But while some leaders in Rhode Island are addressing the issues unhoused individuals face after they are already displaced, Matos said the state is “not doing enough to prevent homelessness.”
So Matos said she wants to introduce a statewide program that helps victims of fires, which would include assistance through the American Red Cross (the Red Cross already does some community outreach and help when a family is displaced due to fires) with a rehousing component. She said the development of such a program is still in the beginning stages.
And next year, Matos said she plans on hosting a housing summit that will bring advocates and developers in the same room to draft tangible action plans to produce affordable housing.
“I think we need a comprehensive plan that understands that government alone isn’t going to solve the crisis. The private sector also needs to play a role,” she said.