PROVIDENCE — Despite Republican opposition, the state House of Representative on Tuesday passed legislation that would allow the conversion of offices, schools, and others commercial buildings into housing.
The bill, introduced by Representative Karen Alzate, is part of the 14-bill package of housing bills that House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi is backing to address Rhode Island’s housing crisis.
The House voted 69 to 2 for the bill, with Republican Representatives Patricia L. Morgan and Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung casting the “no” votes.
Earlier in the day, the Rhode Island Republican Party blasted the bill, saying it would override local control and questioning whether it is meant to benefit clients of House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, whose Warwick law office handles zoning and land use permitting.
“There are two major problems with Shekarchi’s commercial-to-residential conversion bill,” the Republican Party said in a statement.
“First, it overrides local control over land use and zoning uses and could lead to negative consequences for municipalities, as noted in the letter by Cranston Planning Commissioner [and Republican National Committeeman] Steve Frias,” the statement read.
“Second, it raises the question of whether Shekarchi is pushing legislation, which overrides local control, in order to benefit his clients and his law practice.”
The Republican statement speculated about whether Shekarchi has a client “who wants to convert commercial property to an apartment complex and does not want to follow Warwick’s zone code.”
The GOP statement noted that in 2021, Shekarchi represented a developer before the Warwick Zoning Board of Review, seeking to convert a hotel into 203 dwelling units and to provide less than the required number of parking spaces.
“You don’t usually see a state legislator push for a bill that overrides his own municipality’s zoning code,” the GOP statement read.
In response, Shekarchi issued a statement, saying, “This bill is supported by the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, among many others. It does not impact any of my current or past clients and is not effective until next year.”
Rhode Island has a “a severe housing crisis,” Shekarchi said. “And this is one of many bills that will make a difference. I am not going to let a Republican national committeeman deter me from creating more housing opportunities in Rhode Island.”
In written testimony, the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns said it supported the “adaptive re-use” bill because it provides “an opportunity for a targeted approach to housing.”
The proposed legislation “especially benefits our more rural communities as they have limited public infrastructure to support large-scale housing developments,” the league said. “This would allow and encourage municipalities to lean into the building stock they have available.”
Alzate, a Pawtucket Democrat, introduced the bill in March, saying it would make it easier to convert commercial structures such as hospitals or mills into housing.
“In Pawtucket, we have had great success in repurposing our old mill and factory structures into new housing developments, and I believe similar successes would be seen across the state with the passage of this legislation,” Alzate said at the time. “Even in Pawtucket, we have barely tapped the potential of existing and vacant structures to help alleviate the housing crisis, and this bill will help spur necessary and vital housing development in the state.”
The bill would allow, as a permitted use, the “adaptive reuse” of commercial buildings such as mills, factories, hospitals, malls, churches and schools, into high-density residential developments without the need to go before a municipal planning board for a zone change.
Incentives for developers include not requiring one parking space per unit. “The specific zoning ordinance provisions for adaptive reuse shall exempt adaptive reuse developments from off-street parking requirements of over one space per dwelling unit,” the bill says.
Also, many of these buildings already have ample water and electricity, Alzate said. Density would be determined at a minimum of 15 units per acre where the project provides for a portion of low- and moderate-income units and where development is within an existing footprint.
While the GOP issued a statement on Tuesday, no Republican legislators spoke against the bill on the House floor, and seven Republicans voted for the legislation. The bill now heads to the Senate for consideration.
The House also passed a bill, which is part of the housing package, that would create a “transit-oriented development” pilot program to encourage denser housing development around transit hubs. The bill, introduced by Representative Leonela Felix, a Pawtucket Democrat, passed by a vote of 68 to 1, with Morgan voting “no.”
“Promoting denser development around transit hubs is not only about creating affordable housing, but also about building more sustainable and equitable communities,” Felix said. “By investing in mixed-use developments near public transportation, this pilot program will help address housing shortages, reduce traffic, improve air quality and move us closer to achieving our carbon emission targets.”