PROVIDENCE — A state Senate bill introduced on Friday would create a state Department of Housing, tapping $300 million in federal funds to buy and build homes in response to Rhode Island’s housing crisis.
Senator Meghan E. Kallman, a Pawtucket Democrat, introduced the Create Homes Act, saying no other state has taken this action to address to acute shortages of affordable housing.
“It is an unbelievable crisis we are facing,” Kallman told the Globe on Friday. “It’s incredibly grave. So we need to build more housing, and we need to restore and invest in our existing housing stock, which is some of the oldest housing stock in the country.”
Rhode Island has an array of housing organizations that are doing excellent work, such as Rhode Island Housing, HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University, and local organizations such as the Pawtucket Central Falls Development, she said.
But Kallman, who is vice chair of the Senate Housing and Municipal Government Committee, said there is clearly a need to have put more “muscle” behind a single entity that could create more housing throughout the state.
She noted Rhode Island law already calls for 10 percent of the housing stock in every city and town to 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.
“That tells me we need to a put more muscle and capacity behind that rule,” Kallman said. “If cities and towns have not been able to meet that goal two decades later, we need to create the tools and capacity they don’t have.”
She said the proposal would dovetail with housing legislation championed by House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat.
For example, Shekarchi introduced a bill to elevate the position of deputy secretary of commerce for housing to a Cabinet-level position, saying the state needs someone who is responsible to coordinating all the various housing programs and is accountable for results. And Kallman said that Cabinet member could head the proposed Department of Housing.
Kallman called for using $300 million in American Recovery Plan Act funds to launch the new department, which would have the power to acquire land and build, own, and operate affordable housing, as well as to contract with others to do that work. Municipalities and non-profits could also apply for funding to build affordable housing.
“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the housing crisis,” Kallman said. “Federal stimulus funds will allow us to both funnel money directly into housing construction, and also invest in the kind of statewide planning infrastructure that enables us to have a solid, long-term housing plan for the future. Housing is a human right and the foundation of well-being, and we need an agency that is equipped to make safe, clean, affordable housing a reality for all Rhode Islanders.”
Kallman’s bill has six Senate co-sponsors, including Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, North Providence Democrat. No companion bill has been introduced yet in the House.
Reclaim RI, a social justice group formed by Rhode Island leaders of US Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, said it has made a “Homes for All” campaign its top priority and will push for the Create Homes Act.
“Rhode Island faces a dire housing crisis compounded by the pandemic and decades of inaction,” said Jordan Goyette, Reclaim RI’s political director. “This bill is a bold one that recognizes that the status quo can’t fix the problem and that state government needs the tools to step in and build new, affordable housing at a large scale.”
Brenda Clement, director of HousingWorks RI, saidd the Create Homes Act “would give the state government resources needed to address long-standing housing issues.”
She called the bill “a good first step to address the urgent housing needs that we face,” saying, “Safe and affordable homes provide an important foundation for our state’s economic growth and also to improve health and educational outcomes for our state’s residents.”