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McKee signs legislation dedicating $250m to affordable housing for low-income R.I. residents

R.I. Housing Secretary Josh Saal said the funds could spur housing that includes social services, expanding options for seniors, persons with disabilities, and persons experiencing homelessness

Rhode Island Governor Dan J. McKee signs a historic set of bills that will dedicate $250 million to combat the state's housing crisis on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022 in Warwick, R.I.Alexa Gagosz

WARWICK — Inside a packed bingo room at the Meadowbrook Terrace, Governor Dan J. McKee signed a long-sought bill that dedicates $250 million toward affordable housing for the state’s low-income residents.

“This historic investment will not only create and preserve thousands of units of housing, but it will also transform blighted properties, strengthen communities, and create good-paying construction jobs in the process,” said McKee at the affordable housing complex Thursday, accompanied by housing advocates, politicians, and US Senator Jack Reed.

As a cosponsor to the LIFELINE Act, Reed helped make $350 billion in flexible funding available under the American Rescue Plan Act’s State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds to be used for the development, repair, and operation of affordable housing units.

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“COVID-19 has put more stress on affordable housing… It’s particularly difficult for those vulnerable in our society” including seniors, said Reed, who called for “every community” in Rhode Island to do its part and build affordable units. “We cannot leave them behind.”

McKee said housing remained a priority. Of the $250 million, he said his administration will work to create new housing across all income levels, stabilize households that are at risk of involuntary displacement or homelessness, and improve the quality and safety of the existing housing stock.

State Housing Secretary Josh Saal, whose position was elevated to a Cabinet-level position on July 1, said these funds could also help spur the development of supportive and accessible housing that includes social services, expanding options for seniors, persons with disabilities, and persons experiencing homelessness. Saal is the state’s first officially designated housing secretary.

In an interview with the Globe, Saal said he hopes these new funds will help create up to 1,500 new income-restricted units across the state. When asked whether some of these units will be studios or larger apartments, such as a three-bedroom, he said the it would be necessary to draft a statewide housing plan before moving forward.

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“We need to have a more predictable guideline so developers can come here and know what to expect when it comes to our expectations,” he said. When pressed, Saal agreed the plan would be made public “within the next year.” He declined to say whether that plan could be made available within the next six months.

McKee also signed into law H-7949, an act that will streamline the permitting and appeals process when developing low- and moderate-income housing. The law will also add two additional voting members to the state housing appeals board.

Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, said housing is a “complex issue that is often misunderstood. Because of that, it’s feared,” he said. “The classic NIMBY... Not in my backyard.”

”You can’t solve this problem overnight,” said Shekarchi, who explained in an interview with the Globe that only seven cities and towns in Rhode Island have met the “10 percent threshold,” which requires 10 percent of each municipalities’ housing stock be “affordable.”

Saal also said that most affordable housing construction takes “about four or five years” to build. He said he hopes these new measures will allow construction and zoning approvals to take “one or two years instead,” a more “competitive” time frame for developers.

“We’ve been competitive in some of the terms that we offer, but we are not competitive in getting the funding in a condensed amount of time so a developer knows they can close in ‘x’ amount of time,” said Saal in an interview.

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Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.