EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — With a sliver of sun streaming through the dusty windows, Karen Santilli stood inside an abandoned nursing home that she and three other women recently took over and said she recognized “nothing” would be easy about this project. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her new partners, Santilli detailed their vision of redeveloping the space into a mixed-use campus that includes affordable housing units for families — some of whom are currently homeless with their children.
In late March, a coalition of four women who lead housing and social service organizations in Rhode Island acquired the three blighted lots along Taunton Avenue for $4.5 million. The coalition — called the “Taunton Avenue Collaborative” — includes Santilli, One Neighborhood Builders President and Executive Director Jennifer Hawkins, Foster Forward’s Executive Director Lisa Guillette, and Family Service of Rhode Island’s CEO Margaret Holland McDuff.
The four on Thursday morning unveiled their $60 million plans to redevelop the site into a mixed-use campus that includes 160 affordable housing units with supportive services, an early childhood development center, and playgrounds. Approximately 40 percent of the units would be subsidized for families who have little to no income.
“We’re transforming blighted, abandoned properties into desperately needed housing. [And we have] this collaborative effort with organizations that voluntarily came together in a sector that sometimes doesn’t get a lot of credit. It’s completely unprecedented,” said Santilli, the CEO of homeless service provider Crossroads Rhode Island. “But this could be a model for the state and the country.”
Hawkins said she is dedicated to an “aggressive” development schedule to complete the project by the summer of 2025, which could help get dozens of families off the streets and out of shelters. But there’s one major piece standing in their way: a $28 million funding gap.
Given the urgency of housing crisis and the specific needs of the vulnerable populations these organizations serve, Hawkins said the collaborative has requested the state allocate a direct appropriation of $28 million to advance the project in this year’s budget.
“Families who are in hotels and staying in homeless shelters right now are incurring exorbitant costs to the state,” said Hawkins. “For less money, [these families] can have much higher quality housing.”
Like many affordable housing developments, assembling financing for the project has been complex. Despite the nation’s housing crises, government subsidies for creating and preserving affordable apartments remain scarce. Lenders typically loan money for development projects based on a property’s expected income. So if the rents are expected to be low, there’s a gap between the funds needed to build and what investors and lenders are usually willing to provide.
Hawkins told the Globe that while their plans have been “met with enthusiasm,” Governor Daniel J. McKee, Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, Senate President Joseph Ruggerio, and Housing Secretary Stefan I. Pryor have not made any funding commitments.
During a site visit on Thursday, Assistant Housing Secretary Hannah Moore declined to comment when asked about the department’s level of support for state funding. After the publication of this story, Housing Department spokesman Joseph Lindstrom said Pryor introduced a budget amendment last week that includes “several new tools and programs to help fund promising housing developments.”
“The proposed $17 million Priority Projects Fund would be a source of financing that could be utilized for larger-scale, high-quality housing developments that are in the pipeline,” said Lindstrom in a statement. “In addition, the proposed state-level low income housing tax credit would provide needed financing to fill gaps in project budgets; it would also leverage investment from the federal government.”
If the state does not provide a dedicated line item in the budget for the project, construction likely won’t be completed until sometime in 2027. And the organizations will have to undergo the traditional process of applying for funding, which Hawkins said is a “lengthy and competitive process” that only delayed construction timelines, with resources that are “oversubscribed.”
Lindstrom confirmed that the funds introduced in the department’s budget amendment would require the organizations to apply for the funding.
“Given the urgency of our crisis, the opportunity to make a historic one-time investment now is important for both seeing this project to fruition, and encouraging these kinds of [solutions] to solve a really big problem,” said Guillette at Foster Forward, a nonprofit headquartered in East Providence dedicated to supporting adolescents aging out of foster care. She said when the project is completed, the new residents would add “a vibrancy to the neighborhood that does not currently exist.”
The project site includes two empty lots and 350 Taunton Ave., a four-story former nursing home that has largely sat abandoned since the Edmund Place Health Center shuttered in March 2000. For years, the previous owner had attempted to redevelop the property, first constructed in 1975, into dorms, and then apartments. Each attempt failed.
During a press tour on Thursday morning of the building’s interior, a Globe reporter observed pieces of the ceiling that had fallen to the ground. A thick layer of dust had accumulated on what was once used as a front desk. The yellowed wallpaper that was adorned with tiny flower bouquets had aged and was peeling in sections. While the sun shined bright outside, the air in the former nursing home had a significant chill.
The city has also been supportive of the project, providing more than $150,000 to put toward land acquisition costs. East Providence Mayor Bob DaSilva called the Collaborative an “innovative approach” to combating the housing shortage. “I hope other mayors across Rhode Island see what we’re doing in East Providence and commit to replicating our success,” he said.
Hawkins said they plan on rehabilitating the 63,000-square-foot Edmund Place building into 54 affordable units. An additional 106 residential units will be placed in two new buildings on the lots that are currently empty. In the commercial spaces, the organizations said there will be a 6,000-square-foot early childhood learning center, offices for service providers, and ample community space.
When completed, the apartments will be affordable for extremely low- to moderate-income households. Approximately 40 percent of the units “will literally take families right off of the Coordinated Entry System’s shelter waiting list,” said Guillette, whose organization will manage 20 units. “These families are currently staying in hotels, in shelters, and on the streets.”
Crossroads will manage 25 units to provide ongoing support for families and individuals who have experienced homelessness. Family Service of Rhode Island will manage another 20 units and provide supportive services to occupants who are either already involved or at risk of becoming involved with the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families.
The remaining 60 percent of units will be earmarked for households earning a low-to-moderate income, which means their household income is 60 to 120 percent of the area median income — which means a household of two earns more than $46,000 but less than $93,000. A household of four would have to earn between $58,000 and $116,000 to qualify.
This collaborative “is a prime example of how we can build housing at a meaningful scale while redeveloping vacant and blighted properties,” said Hawkins.
“This is already shovel-ready,” said Guillette. “Why hold up the process?”
This story has been updated with comments from the Rhode Island Department of Housing.