PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island has a shortage of affordable housing, school districts and hospitals have a shortage of teachers and nurses, and Rhode Island College has a shortage of students.
In an attempt to address all three problems, state officials are working on a plan that would use RIC dorms to provide affordable apartments to education and health care students and graduates if they commit to working in the state for a set period of time.
The plan remains in the concept stage, but officials are hoping to finalize a state budget proposal that would fund renovations and new construction at RIC, state Commissioner on Postsecondary Education Shannon Gilkey said Tuesday.
“We are trying to reimagine institutions like RIC across the country that are the affordable mechanism for four-year degrees that have a return on investment and a pathway to the middle class,” Gilkey said. “The general concept is a professional workforce community that would attract individuals to those professions, let them be among their peers, have access to high-quality affordable housing, and work in Rhode Island.”
For example, a RIC graduate could work in Providence public schools while also pursuing a master’s degree and living with fellow teachers and graduate students, he said. The plan is to “lower the overhead” for educators and health care workers who were “front-line workers” during the pandemic, he said.
Gilkey said he is not aware of another state that has a program quite like the one being considered. “No one has figured out how to braid the private, state, and federal dollars to build the units,” he said. “But there is a ‘there’ there.”
Funding would be needed to renovate dorms and build new ones, Gilkey said. About 70 percent of RIC students commute, and about half of RIC’s dorm space is unused, he said. But the “usable life” of some dorms has expired, and they need to be torn down and rebuilt, he said.
He said the proposal would help RIC, which has seen its enrollment plunge by 25.5 percent in four years — from a total of 7,771 full- and part-time undergraduate and graduate students in 2018 to 5,787 in 2022.
The plan could also help address the challenge of finding affordable housing, Gilkey said. A recent report concluded Rhode Island has a shortage of 24,050 affordable and available rental homes.
And he said the proposal would help address the shortage of teachers and health care workers in Rhode Island. Local hospitals and nursing homes have reported severe staff shortages in recent years, and Providence public schools began the year with 162 unfilled teaching jobs.
“We have had a national conversation about raising teacher pay, which I support,” Gilkey said. “But this could be a way to attract and retain people in health care and education by lowering the cost of housing.”
He said officials have not determined how much rent people would pay in the RIC apartments or how long people would be required to work in Rhode Island to qualify for the apartments. But he said one model could be the 10-year period that eligible borrowers can have to discharge student loans.
He said it’s not clear yet how much money for the plan will be included in Governor Daniel J. McKee’ 2023-2024 state budget proposal.
In a recent interview with the Globe, McKee talked about plans to “create transitional housing for teachers and nurses as they come out of school and then maybe want to continue doing graduate work on campus.”
The Democrat said he planned to put the plan into his 2023-24 state budget proposal, which he is expected to announce Jan. 19.
“There’s multiple ways that that can be done, but that’s the plan and I’m pretty excited about it,” McKee said. “It fits right into having them flow into the Providence schools, in particular, because we need to really recruit teachers in a way that represents the communities that are served in that community.”
On Tuesday, McKee spokesman Matthew Sheaff said one of the governor’s top priorities is raising incomes for Rhode Islanders, and investing in Rhode Island College is crucial in reaching that goal.
“Right now, we have the opportunity to reimagine RIC in a way that not only supports students now and in the future, but also in a way that strengthens our economic momentum by keeping these graduates in Rhode Island working in good-paying and needed professions in health care and education,” Sheaff said. “The top two things we want for our RIC graduates are access to a good-paying job here in Rhode Island and access to the affordable housing needed to remain here.”