PROVIDENCE — While leaning back into a booth at a Warwick restaurant earlier this week, Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi ran his hands over a stack of papers that outlined a 14-bill package of housing legislation. With the tap of his knuckles, in an exclusive interview with the Globe on Monday night, he repeated what he’s dead focused on: “production, production, production.”
The bills, unveiled Thursday, are products of nearly two years of hearings and testimony from the Low and Moderate Income Housing (LMIH) Commission and the Land Use Commission, and seek to standardize municipal planning and development processes, update outdated laws that Shekarchi said needed to be brought into the 21st century, and encourage new construction.
The lack of housing, Shekarchi said, is one of Rhode Island’s most critical issues. And the state needs “to build ‘regular’ housing, affordable housing, low-income housing, and [for] those who are currently unhoused,” said Shekarchi, who said he is considering a run for Congress. “This package, to some degree, addresses that.”
‘A family can stay together’
One bill, which is sponsored by LMIH commission Chairwoman June Speakman, would amend last year’s legislation pertaining to accessory dwelling units, also known as ADUs, to spur production for populations who are unable to find suitable affordable housing, such as seniors and professional school graduates. By right, properties of more than 20,000 square feet would be able to construct ADUs within their existing footprint. The ADUs would be limited to 900 square feet and could be constructed on top of garages, in basements, or elsewhere. Once constructed, ADUs would be prohibited from being used for short-term or transient use — meaning, they can’t be listed on Airbnb.
ADUs mean “a family can stay together,” said Shekarchi. “Grandma doesn’t have to go to a nursing home. Adult children don’t have to move out and get an apartment. They can live at home.”
Legislation sponsored by Representative Cherie L. Cruz, a Pawtucket Democrat, would prohibit rental application fees. In December, the Boston Globe published a story that documented the life of the Strong family, a hard-working, middle-class family of six who spiraled into homelessness and spent more than $5,000 in apartment application fees while they searched for a new place to live. Shekarchi told the Globe it was because of the Strong family’s plight that this bill — and similar pieces of legislation — are before the General Assembly.
“It was that story that in the Boston Globe that moved me to look at this,” said Shekarchi, who called the fees “ridiculous.”
‘We’re taking one whole step out of the process’
Also part of the speaker’s housing package, legislation sponsored by Representative Leonela Felix, a Pawtucket Democrat, would create a transit-oriented development pilot program to encourage growth centers along transit corridors. The application, award, and reporting process for the program will eventually be outlined by rules set by Housing Secretary Stefan I. Pryor.
Shekarchi also sponsored legislation that would streamline the process of building permitting from three steps to just two. He also wants to create a housing and land use court calendar, which is outlined in another bill he sponsored, that would allow the presiding judge of the Rhode Island Superior Court to streamline eligible matters. Shekarchi explained that all planning board appeals should be sent straight to Superior Court. This will work in tandem with a bill sponsored by Representative José Batista, a Providence Democrat, that would repeal Rhode Island’s State Housing Appeals Board — also known as SHAB — as of Jan. 1, 2024.
“By eliminating SHAB, we’re taking one whole step out of the process,” he said.
Melina Lodge, the executive director of the Housing Network of Rhode Island, said these bills respond to a number of “barriers that have made housing development challenging, time consuming and subsequently, expensive in our state.”
“Our inability to effectively meet the demand for housing has negatively impacted countless Rhode Island households,” she said. This legislation “represents a positive step forward in alleviating our state’s housing crisis.”
Could standardizing the pre-development process spur development?
Another issue that Shekarchi says has prevented development throughout Rhode Island is a municipality’s comprehensive plan. If a project does not align with a town’s plan, it’s commonly denied. But some plans haven’t been updated in decades.
“This is grossly unfair, especially when it comes to low-income housing,” said Shekarchi, a lawyer who said he does not represent any affordable housing developers. “A town shouldn’t be able to deny a project because it’s inconsistent from a plan written 30 years ago.”
In his legislative package, he has backed a proposal sponsored by House Municipal Government and Housing Committee Chairman Stephen M. Casey, a Woonsocket Democrat, that would require all municipalities to update their plans at least every 10 years. Plans that have not been updated within 12 years could not be used to justify the denial of a housing project.
In a separate bill, sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert E. Craven, land development permits and processes would be standardized across the state. At this point, each municipality has different permits and processes in Rhode Island, making it more difficult for developers to build. Neighboring states, such as Massachusetts, have a standard permitting process.
Legislation sponsored by House Finance Committee Chairman Marvin L. Abney would also make amendments to the inclusionary zoning statute. When a developer proposes a multi-unit residential project to a municipality, the town might ask that some units be deemed “affordable,” or the developer can contribute a fee in lieu of housing. These fees can cost thousands. The statute provides that municipalities are supposed to apply the fees toward building affordable housing.
”What are they doing with it? Are [towns] just sitting on it?” asked Shekarchi. In many cases: “Nothing. It’s sitting there.”
Abney’s bill would have municipalities that do not use these funds within two years turn them over to Rhode Island Housing to construct new housing in that town. It’s unclear how much each municipality may be holding. However, Pryor’s office is expected to hand in a report that would shine light on how widespread the funding is, according to Shekarchi’s director of policy Lynne Urbani.
Shekarchi, who represents Warwick, says he sees many vacant properties throughout the state — including old schools, office buildings, mills, hospitals, closed malls, and churches — that could be transformed into new housing units. Part of his package includes legislation sponsored by Representative Karen Alzate, a Pawtucket Democrat, which would allow the adaptive reuse of commercial structures into high-density residential developments. There would be incentives to develop, and parking would not be required to be over one space per unit, which currently prohibits density. For Shekarchi, this bill is special. He lives in a building that was once a school.
‘There’s a huge misunderstanding as to what affordable housing is’
Prior to unveiling the legislation during a press conference on Thursday afternoon, where he was joined by housing advocates and fellow lawmakers, some leaders in rural Rhode Island towns expressed concern that the speaker’s housing package would take control away from municipalities. But in an interview ahead of the press conference, Shekarchi said “nothing” in the package will force communities to build more affordable housing, nor will it circumvent local decision-making. So far, it’s won over some Republican leaders.
In a LMIH commission meeting on Tuesday, Minority Leader Michael W. Chippendale said the legislation provides opportunities to “eliminate bureaucracy,” “gets rid of the red tape,” and “gets the government out of” the development process. The next step, he said, is adding a public relations element to explain why and what the state is doing.
For example, he said, “There’s a huge misunderstanding as to what affordable housing is.”
Speakman and Land Use Commission Chairman Thomas E. Deller, who is also a planner in Central Falls, both attended Thursday’s press conference. Today’s legislative package would extend both special commissions — which are entirely made up of volunteers — for another two years, to 2025.
“Since its inception, substantive legislation has been developed as a result of the testimony and discussions that arose during commission meetings,” said Speakman. “However, we still have more work to do.”
Brenda Clement, the director of HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University, will become a member of the Low and Moderate Income Housing Commission. Members of the Land Use commission will be subject to reappointment, as Deller looks to identify additional planners to bring on.
“By making the development process simpler, faster, and more predictable, we’re not only expediting work already in the pipeline,” said Shekarchi, “but also incentivizing more private developers to invest in Rhode Island.
When asked if there were pieces of housing legislation that didn’t make it into this package, Shekarchi said there’s “always a bunch of stuff you want to” take to task. “This package is personal. It’s big,” Shekarchi said.
“There’s some who might think this package will go too far. Others will say it won’t go far enough. And I get that,” said Shekarchi. “But these are things that I know will make a real impact. They’re attainable. I didn’t want to chase a windmill.”