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COMMENTARY

Housing is a right for all Rhode Islanders, and there are resources to help

Rhode Island General Assembly candidate says the affordability crisis has particularly affected Black and brown state residents, leaving approximately half of all renters cost burdened.

I know what it’s like to lose everything.

Between the ages of 12 and 15, my family rented a house in the Oaklawn section of Cranston, R.I. During the time we lived there, the house became contaminated with chipping lead paint and toxic black mold from an unrepaired roof leak due to ice dams. My mom asked, continually, for over a year, for our landlord to repair the paint, fix the roof that was leaking water into our living room, and eradicate the mold that was growing across walls. They refused, over and over again, saying “there was no money in their budget.”

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All the while, everyone in my house was extremely ill. My grandmother was very sick with lung cancer and epiglottitus. The rest of us suffered from asthma, headaches, skin infections, bloody noses and brain fog; my little brother was diagnosed with lead paint poisoning.

My mom and grandma did not have the money to move our family, so they legally decided to withhold the rent until the repairs were made. However, the landlord started an eviction process and they went to court.

At court, both sides mediated the case. We were given 15 days to leave and find housing. My grandmother needed somewhere to go to recover from lung cancer surgery that was safe and had clean air. We were told by her oncologist, air quality experts and remediation companies that our home was not habitable. So we left immediately.

Five of us stayed in one hotel room with a dog. I went to school the next day with just the clothes on my back. Two months later, we finally moved into an apartment — one that was more expensive than my mom and grandma could afford together. But there were no other choices. It was that or be homeless, again.

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Right now, we’re in a global pandemic, temperatures are dropping, and there are more than 1,000 people who are homeless in Rhode Island. Of the Rhode Islanders who are housed, more than 146,000 households are cost burdened, meaning that more than 30 percent of their income goes to paying for housing.

The housing affordability crisis has become so severe that a family earning $50,000 cannot afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment without becoming cost-burdened in 36 of Rhode Island’s 39 municipalities. This crisis has particularly affected Black and brown state residents, leaving approximately half of all renters in Rhode Island cost burdened, and diverging home ownership rates sharply across racial lines.

Things are particularly bad in my hometown of Cranston. While Rhode Island law requires every municipality to allocate 10 percent of their housing stock to low and moderate income housing, Cranston falls short by more than 1,500 units — meeting only half (5.1 percent) of the requirement.

According to Rhode Island’s Homeless Management Information System, the number of unhoused individuals has increased by 86 percent since January 2021 and 22 percent since July 1st. There are 1,029 individuals on waiting lists for individual and family shelters — including 165 family households with 532 parents and children. In the midst of this crisis, Governor Dan McKee has only called for 10 percent of the American Rescue Plan Act funds to be spent. His plan only includes $1.5 million of the total $1.13 billion to be spent on housing stability and mental health services for families and individuals experiencing homelessness. This is unacceptable.

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Furthermore, despite our overwhelming housing crisis, House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi is refusing to call the House into an emergency session to allocate the ARPA funding and ensure that all Rhode Islanders have their basic needs of survival. This isn’t the first time Shekarchi has left people out on the streets without a home. In 2020 alone, Shekarchi’s law office represented the Warwick Housing Authority in eight of their eviction proceedings.

It’s more clear than ever that our politicians — deeply entrenched, conservative Democrats — do not care about the crisis we are in. Our ARPA funds should go toward expanding emergency shelters, transitional housing, and the construction of long term, affordable green housing to solve our state’s housing crisis.

We have the opportunity to make housing a right for all Rhode Islanders and not just the wealthy. We have the opportunity to make significant, positive change in our state, and we have the resources to do so. We also have the opportunity to elect working class people who, just like me, have had to live with the consequences of our broken government and who are ready to make change.

Harrison Tuttle is the executive director of Black Lives Matters Rhode Island-PAC and a candidate for the Rhode Island General Assembly.