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RI POLITICS

R.I. House unveils 11 bills to address housing crisis

The legislation would create a Cabinet-level housing post, streamline the approval process, and repurpose vacant schools and other municipal property for housing

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi speaks at a State House news conference on housing legislation along with Representative June S. Speakman, left, and Representative Jacquelyn M. Baginski, right.Edward Fitzpatrick

PROVIDENCE — House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Representative June S. Speakman on Thursday unveiled a package of 11 bills to address Rhode Island’s house crisis.

The bills aim to streamline development, provide more complete and timely information about housing, and help cities and towns meet affordable housing goals.

“We need all types of housing,” Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, said during a State House news conference. “We need mixed-use housing, single-family housing, multi-family housing, low- and moderate-income housing, public housing, affordable housing. We need more of a supply. We must end or eliminate the barriers to creation. This package which we have introduced makes a significant step in that direction.”

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One bill introduced by Speakman would revise the procedure for approval of construction of low- or moderate-income housing, removing the requirement of a pre-application conference. And a bill introduced by Shekarchi would elevate the position of deputy secretary of commerce for housing to a Cabinet-level position.

In December, Governor Daniel J. McKee appointed Josh Saal as deputy secretary of commerce for housing, within the Commerce Corporation.

But Shekarchi said it’s important to elevate that job to a Cabinet position so that someone who reports directly to the governor is responsible to coordinating all the various housing programs and is accountable for results. He said Saal “seems to possess all the tools necessary” to fill that role, and there is a “strong possibility” of making him the permanent chair of Rhode Island Housing.

Legislators said the package of bills stems from the work of the Special Legislative Commission to Study the Rhode Island Low and Moderate Income Housing Act, which has been meeting biweekly since July.

Speakman, a Warren Democrat who chairs the commission, said housing policy is an area that has not received sufficient attention on the national and state level for many years.

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“It has been sort of left to the local communities and nonprofits to solve the housing needs of Rhode Islanders,” she said. “Consequently, we have a hodgepodge of underfunded programs that do not actually meet the needs of Rhode Islanders – in particular communities of color, low-income communities, seniors, and the disabled. You could probably add young families to that, as well.”

The latest batch of bills follows a package of seven housing bills that Shekarchi backed last year. With the earlier batch, the legislature created a permanent stream of funding for affordable housing, and it outlawed discrimination against those who receive Section 8 or other housing assistance.

The package of new legislation includes:

  • A bill, introduced by Representative Jacquelyn M. Baginski, a Cranston Democrat, aimed at the repurposing of vacant and unused schools and other municipal buildings for an affordable housing program administered by Rhode Island Housing.
  • A bill, introduced by Representative Brandon Potter, a Cranston Democrat, that would include mobile and manufactured homes in the calculation of the total low- and moderate-income housing in each city and town.
  • A bill, introduced by Representative Mia Ackerman, a Cumberland Democrat, that would revise the definition of an accessory dwelling unit, removing the requirement that “those units be occupied by someone related by family to the principal residence.”

Brenda Clement, director of HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University, said the package of legislation begins to address some of the local barriers preventing the development of more homes in Rhode Island.

“The need is dire,” Clement said. “People need housing now. We don’t need to talk about it anymore. We need to start building.”

During the news conference, Clement held up a can of WD-40, explaining it took scientists 39 tries before they finally got the formula right for the water-displacing spray so they named it WD-40. “Now, Speaker, I hope it doesn’t take 39 times to figure this out,” she said. “I think we have a lot of expertise in this room, we have a lot of knowledge in this room. We know what to do. We just need to start doing it.”

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She said the WD-40 story reminds her that Rhode Island contains 39 cities and towns.

“And in order for this formula to work, every single community needs to step up and do more around housing,” Clement said, “whether it’s looking for home ownership opportunities in Scituate or South County, whether it’s welcoming emergency or transitional housing in communities in South County or the northern part of the state, whether it’s looking for options for seniors to age in place.”

Rhode Island law already 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 this package of legislation is probably not going to increase the number of communities meeting that requirement. “I think that is coming for another day, another set of legislation,” he said. “I think this helps make housing affordable, reduces the barriers and the hurdles, and expedites the timetable. It makes it a priority.”

Shekarchi noted that on the first day of this year’s legislative session, the General Assembly authorized spending $119 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act money, including $29.5 million to promote affordable housing, housing stability supports, and broadband planning. And that is on top of millions more approved for housing programs in recent years, he said.

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“The funds are there,” Shekarchi said. “We need them to be utilized, and we need to hold people accountable to see what kind of results.”

House Minority Whip Michael W. Chippendale, a Foster Republican who is one of three legislators on the commission, said he refused to attend Thursday’s news conference because the commission is still doing its work and no one asked for his input on the proposed legislation.

“To my surprise I received an invitation to the rollout of these pieces of legislation due to the great work of the commission I’m on when we haven’t even begun to discuss solutions,” said Chippendale, who was seen in the State House just before the news conference began. “I am not going to stand up there and legitimize the process that these bills went through.”

Chippendale said the commission is still talking about the problems that need to be addressed. “No one has asked me my opinion for solutions or suggestions on legislation, and I have plenty of suggestions,” he said. “I didn’t know these bills were being written. It’s an affront to the people on the commission who are very much still working on this extremely important issue.”

Shekarchi said the commission is expected to continue working for at least another year. “This is by no means the end,” he said. “This is the beginning, or the second beginning, or the next step in a long journey.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.