PROVIDENCE — When Stefan I. Pryor becomes Rhode Island’s second-ever housing secretary, he will be tasked with taking on a crisis that has snowballed over three decades.
Rhode Islanders continue to be priced out of places to live due to a shortage of housing stock — and some of them even become homeless. Those working to address the crisis — from advocates, nonprofit leaders, homeless providers, and affordable housing developers to lawmakers, municipal leaders, and town zoning boards -- are on all different pages about how critical the issue actually is and how it can be tackled.
In an exclusive interview with the Globe, Pryor said Rhode Island’s housing crisis is in a “crucial period.”
Housing “is of enormous importance in general, but at this precise moment, we have to enable communities to enhance the affordability for our residents,” said Pryor, who officially starts as housing secretary on Feb. 6.
Pryor, who has served in a variety of roles largely focused on economic development and education over two decades and across four states, most recently as Rhode Island commerce secretary and candidate for state treasurer, has been a key negotiator to get tough projects over the finish line. But several decisions, such as giving millions of dollars in public subsidies to the wealthy owner of the Superman building and issues with the Tidewater Landing project, have been met with public outcry.
When he starts, Pryor will be leading a housing department that is woefully understaffed. In his proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2024, Governor Dan McKee suggested $2.7 million in funding to raise the department’s number of full-time employees to 38, up from 17.
The department has been charged with implementing the $250 million earmarked for housing from the state’s federal ARPA dollars. That funding was half of what advocates requested, and only a portion was allocated to construct new units. Some observers note these funds are only a “down payment.”
“When people hear $250 million — which is a lot — and terms like ‘historic investment,’ they equate that to ‘game changing.’ This funding is not a game changer,” said Melina Lodge, the executive director of the Housing Network of Rhode Island. “It’s a drop in the bucket on what could be a multi-billion dollar problem.”
The state has just 51 affordable and available rental homes for every 100 extremely low-income households while more than half of Rhode Island’s lowest-income renters are at risk of homelessness, according to national reports.
Once funds are allocated, construction can take 18 months to more than two years. Financing affordable housing is complicated and expensive, and the longer Rhode Island waits to make further investments, the pricier it will get, Lodge said.
Estimated costs are always evolving — especially as construction costs have skyrocketed and decades-old zoning laws also hinder the construction of affordable housing. When developments are built, they must be maintained regularly, Lodge explained, which will require additional funding.
In April 2022, the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported Rhode Island had a shortage of 24,050 affordable and available rental homes — an 11 percent increase compared to 2021. Cortney Nicolato, the CEO of the United Way of Rhode Island, said she thinks that number is “fairly conservative.”
“Finally we have the funding and momentum to start fixing the housing crisis,” said Nicolato in an October 2022 interview. “But if we don’t tackle it the right way, we’ll keep having the same conversations about how hundreds of Rhode Islanders are sleeping outside in the cold every winter.”
What’s next for the statewide housing plan?
Pryor is starting less than a month after the departure of the state’s first housing secretary, Joshua D. Saal, who submitted his resignation on Jan. 11 after months of missteps reported by the Globe.
At the time of his departure, Saal was seeking a consultant to help create a statewide housing plan, which observers and housing advocates say is necessary to measure any sort of progress.
McKee told the Globe on Jan. 20 that the request for proposals for that consultant — which is due in February — will remain in place.
Brenda Clement, the executive director of HousingWorks R.I. at Roger Williams University, said she intends to apply. Her organization’s annual fact books provide town-by-town housing data, but Clement said more needs to be done to understand where and what the need is.
“For example, we have a lot of seniors who are trying to age-in-place in this state,” said Clement in an interview in early January. “We need lower-cost price points for that population, but also universal design and accessibility.”
‘We can’t go back’
Pryor will face housing and homelessness advocates and providers who have been frustrated with the lack of trust, transparency, and collaboration under the previous housing secretary. As they work to provide critical care to at-risk populations, they face budget shortfalls, a perpetual staffing crisis, and a state that has been slow to fund additional shelter beds.
“It’s important that a leader be able to exhibit empathy. Listen and ask questions. Exhibit the humility to know that you might not have all the answers. But also have the fortitude to withstand criticisms. If you’re not making everyone a little unhappy, you’re really not doing this job,” Jennifer Hawkins, the CEO of affordable housing developer One Neighborhood Builders, told the Globe. “Because we can’t go back. [A housing secretary] is crucially needed.”
Pryor, who will also serve as chair of Rhode Island Housing’s board of directors, told the Globe he plans to conduct “outreach” to housing professionals and advocates to “benefit from their observations and experiences.”
“My hope and objective will be to help everyone involved look forward rather than backwards,” he said.
Some industry leaders, including Low and Moderate Income Housing Commission Chairwoman Representative June Speakman, a Warren Democrat, say they would like to see the housing department be more proactive in identifying communities that could receive funding for development. Currently, state funds are administered by Rhode Island Housing, a quasi-public agency largely reliant on developers bringing proposals for consideration.
“We have developers and financiers here,” Speakman told commissioners on Tuesday. “But the municipalities are sort of out there doing their own thing — or not. They’re either connected to this process if they wish to be or if a developer finds a place in their municipality.”
She added, “I hope the [housing] department fills that space.”
Some towns are pushing back
The Low and Moderate Income Housing Act calls for a minimum of 10 percent of the housing supply in Rhode Island’s 39 communities to be classified as “affordable.” But while some communities are eager to create new housing units, others are pushing back.
Senator Gordon E. Rogers, a Foster Republican, has proposed a new coalition to combat “oppressive” legislation that would override local zoning ordinances until towns reached housing goals set by state law in 1991.
Such legislation has not even been drafted yet — it was a part of a proposal presented to the Low and Moderate Income Housing Commission earlier in January. Nonetheless, Rogers told the Globe Wednesday that town councils and managers in Foster, Scituate, Glocester, Richmond, Hopkinton, Exeter and West Greenwich are interested in joining forces against eventual legislation.
Some rural towns say they don’t have the infrastructure in place to handle scores of new residents.
“It’s not equitable to force us to meet the 10 percent. We don’t even have public transportation and 42 percent of our roads are dirt roads,” said Rogers, who said families who need to purchase a car to live in deed-restricted housing defeats the point. “So I’m talking to other rural towns. This legislation will trample over your local zoning and create your destiny for you.”
But those in favor of more development call the opposition an example of “Not in my backyard,” or “NIMBY,” sentiments.
Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, said he was “disappointed” with the group’s opposition to potential housing reform legislation that hadn’t been drafted yet.
“This group’s blind prejudgment smacks of NIMBY-ism and discrimination,” said Shekarchi, who plans to introduce a legislative package focused on housing in late February. “I welcome their testimony after the bills have been drafted and introduced.”
Rogers said he plans to introduce his own legislation, which would aim to improve business parks in rural towns and would designate a percentage of the land for low and moderate income housing near mixed-use retail, supermarkets, services, and a public transportation stop.
Yet even in cities where density is normal, ordinances are being considered that could worsen the crisis. In October, land use attorney and Providence Councilwoman Helen D. Anthony proposed an ordinance that would limit existing housing units to just three college students. If passed, the rule could impact nearly 30,000 units across the city, potentially displacing college students living in larger groups and creating a demand for more rental units that would further strain an already competitive market. Narragansett has been in court for attempting a similar policy.
With extremely low vacancy rates, rising rent costs have forced some lower-income individuals and their children to double up, head into shelters, or — in the worst circumstances — live on the streets.
A chronic lack of shelter
Rhode Island’s long-standing shelter shortage is another aspect to the crisis Pryor will have to face head on.
Proposals for professionally managed emergency shelters have been denied even as new homeless encampments are popping up in public areas — including one on the State House grounds for months in 2022. State and town officials have demanded encampments be removed. Some have been bulldozed, leaving individuals scrambling in the cold.
Earlier this month, Woonsocket public works employees told people living in an encampment they would have to leave 30 minutes before a bulldozer arrived, according to Ben Lessing, the CEO of Community Care Alliance. Nine individuals from the encampment showed up at CCA’s outreach centers, informing staff that they lost warm clothing, tents, and blankets in the scuffle.
The encampment’s removal, Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt told NBC-10 that afternoon, came down to a “quality-of-life issue.” She said the encampment, which was close to a bike and walking path, had created “squalor.”
Collectively, as a state, “we can’t even all agree that we are in the middle of a crisis, let alone how to tackle it,” Laura Jaworski, the executive director of House of Hope, said in an interview recently.
For the last three years, Jaworski has been trying to work with the state to propose the use of rapidly deployable pallet shelters to provide emergency winter housing for those in need. Her nonprofit would manage and staff the shelter, which could include about 20 to 30 shelter units dubbed “Echo Village,” she said. House of Hope needs the state’s help to find a community to locate these shelters. But town leaders have come out strongly against the idea, while places like Boston have been using pallet shelters for more than a year.
People who are homeless “aren’t just from Providence or Central Falls. They’re from every single city and town in this state. This issue touches all of us,” said Jaworski, who said she looks forward to sharing innovative ideas for temporary emergency shelter with Pryor. “Now is the time for the state and the cities to step in and step up.”