Pawtucket’s former Memorial Hospital was supposed to house dozens of homeless Rhode Island families and be on track to being rehabbed as permanent housing. Instead, a sprinkler leak in November rendered the building uninhabitable, forcing families into a Warwick hotel. Working with private owners, who bought the building for a song at $250,000, has turned out to be a major headache. The Globe has exposed Michael Mota, the colorful entrepreneur who now claims to own the property, to be a businessman who has failed to pay his debts to the City of Providence and multiple contractors. Among the many questions raised about Mota by the Globe, it’s not clear whether he even owns the building.
Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor has rightly declared that “all options are on the table” for Memorial. The best such option might be a public redevelopment of the property — and there is currently a major legislative push underway to make Rhode Island the first state in the nation with a state-level developer of housing that could do just that.
One bill, introduced by Representative June Speakman, presents a sustainable solution to the scarcity of funding for affordable housing production. House Bill 6168 would create a housing production revolving fund for the development of mixed-income public housing, either directly by the new state Department of Housing, or in partnership with local public housing authorities. The purpose of the fund is to expand the production of affordable units across the spectrum of low- and moderate-income households, and increase housing options for everyone from low-wage service workers to teachers and professionals. It’s a model drawing on the success of Montgomery County, Maryland, where the public housing authority constructs its own mixed-income apartments with the help of a revolving loan fund, creating new housing types that meet the needs of residents. House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi has co-sponsored the bill, calling the Montgomery County model “an ‘out of the box’ idea that I believe needs to be pursued further in Rhode Island.”
In the Senate, Meghan Kallman is preparing to introduce the Create Homes Act, which would give the Department of Housing the staffing and capacities it needs to address the housing crisis, including by acting as a developer. A public developer model, as we envision it, would ensure workers are paid well, and curb the proliferation of wage theft and mistreatment of workers within underground construction services. A public developer paying workers a prevailing wage would also create career pathways through registered apprenticeships, making sure that those building affordable housing are not paid poverty wages. The housing crisis will not be solved by balancing the equation on the backs of construction workers.
This legislation would give the state Department of Housing, public housing authorities, and other public agencies the authority, funding, and capacities to step up and build in situations where the private sector can’t or won’t.
Memorial Hospital isn’t an isolated example. In recent years, the private sector on its own wasn’t able to build enough to solve this state’s housing crisis amid historic demand and ultra-low interest rates. Now, amid rising interest rates and persistent inflation, private development is more difficult than ever. We are grateful that state leaders are looking hard at creating a state-level public housing developer. It’s urgent that legislative leaders work closely with Secretary Pryor to get this legislation done and the program up and running.
While the state struggles to manage the growing number of Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity, it is critical we think outside the box and deploy new tools to mitigate the crisis. These two bills, H6168 and the Senate’s Create Homes Act, would provide funding and development authority to move more quickly to meet the needs of our residents and diversify affordable housing options statewide. The housing crisis is a human tragedy and an anchor weighing down our economy. A public housing developer model is one of many solutions we will need to enact to get this done. It’s time to face this crisis head on, and take bold action to ensure every person in Rhode Island has shelter and an opportunity to thrive. Rhode Islanders deserve nothing less.
Daniel Denvir is a co-chair of Reclaim Rhode Island. Justin Kelley is a business representative of the Rhode Island Painters Union, International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 11, and organizing director of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council.