PROVIDENCE — When Martha Wofford first saw the lot on Bucklin Street in the West End neighborhood of Providence about a year ago, it was empty, except for overgrown weeds and litter that had piled up around the fence.
By early August, it had been transformed.
A four-bedroom house with sky-blue siding was being constructed by crews from Habitat for Humanity of Greater Providence and East Bay, along with a group of corporate volunteers like Wofford, the president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island. By the end of this year, a multigenerational working class family of four will move in.
Wofford helped advocate for the project, and BCBSRI provided $75,000 for the home’s construction costs, which was matched by a city grant on Aug. 3. About 105 employees from the health insurance company have been regular volunteers on the project, helping out at least twice a month, totaling more than 530 total hours. Wofford included.
It’s part of BCBSRI’s effort to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to Rhode Island’s housing crisis.
“I just really believe in trying to find ways to solve this crisis,” said Wofford during an interview at the construction site recently, her blonde hair pulled back and her tool belt on. BCBSRI’s most-recent annual Life Index found that many Rhode Islanders continue to struggle to meet their most basic needs, so the company has stepped up, providing millions in funding for various housing and homelessness prevention programs.
“Housing is the biggest issue our members, and frankly this state, faces,” Wofford said. “I think we have an obligation to do everything we can.”
Business leaders in Rhode Island are seeing the ramifications of the state’s housing crisis, which has been fueled by the historic lack of housing production. The crisis is limiting the local economy’s growth as businesses struggle to recruit and retain workers.
“If the state fails to address housing, we’re looking at leaving behind our communities, our families, and crippling our entire economy,” said Cortney M. Nicolato, the CEO of United Way of Rhode Island. “To put a dent in the problem, business leaders have to play a role.”
Neil D. Steinberg, the former president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, told the Globe he had long wondered why local hospitals “don’t build a high rise right next door and subsidize it for nurses.”
“House your employees. Fix your staffing crisis,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer for me.”
Even as national trends showed a decline in average home prices, Rhode Island’s hit a historic high of $442,700 thanks to low inventory and a demanding market. Rhode Island also has New England’s oldest housing stock. Many units need to be rebuilt, but those that are renovated are often converted into short-term rentals (like Airbnb), seasonal homes, or rental properties. Rental prices are high, putting what few units that are available out of reach for low-income households.
“It’s not just those with the lowest income. We’re all still just one paycheck away from being without a home,” said Dr. Patricia Jackson, the executive director of Habitat for Humanity’s Providence branch, who grew up homeless and often slept in cars, churches, and hotel rooms around Kansas.
Now, businesses are finding that the lack of affordable, accessible housing is affecting their bottom lines. And corporations based in Rhode Island, many of which have departments dedicated to philanthropy and social impact work, are stepping in to address the issue.
CVS Health in Woonsocket has invested in hundreds of millions of dollars into affordable housing across the US in the last three years. But in that same time frame, only a fraction of their investment — approximately $15.6 million — has been directed to affordable housing in Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.
“Housing is health care,” said Keli Savage, the head of impact investment strategy at CVS. “You aren’t able to manage your mental and physical health unless you have a stable, safe, affordable roof over your head.”
Since 2020, CVS has spent $5 million on affordable housing in Rhode Island. In June, the company invested $8.4 million to help construct 52 affordable housing units in Maine for older adults. The company plans on investing another $6 million in housing across the northeast, and will “seek new opportunities” in Rhode Island, said Savage.
Lifespan, the state’s largest health care system, has a housing assistance program for trainees, which will help pay their rent and utility bills so there aren’t financial barriers to completing the program. It helps with retention, but it’s not yet accessible to all employees. Instead, spokeswoman Kathleen Hart said the health care system is working with RI Housing to help support eligible employees in accessing housing benefits, such as the agency’s first-time homebuyer assistance grants.
Employer-owned and employer-assisted housing is a workforce retention strategy as much as it’s an employee benefit, said Jeanne Cola, the executive director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation Rhode Island. Employer-owned housing might be a pricy upfront cost for businesses, but it’s been a useful for larger, out-of-state corporations and in cities where the cost of living is high. Cola said the tactic has boosted retention rates and revitalized communities. But the idea has not fully caught on in most industries, and has only been used in certain communities in Rhode Island that depend on seasonal employees.
On Block Island, for instance, Ballard’s Beach Resort owns an off-site property that it rents to its employees. “If I didn’t have that property, I wouldn’t be able to operate. There’s no where else for these employees to go on the whole island,” said owner Steven Filippi.
Elsewhere in the US, getting the business community involved in housing policy has generated results.
In central Oregon, Bend Chamber of Commerce CEO Katy Brooks saw how the Covid pandemic exacerbated housing problems in the region. More-affluent people with the ability to work remotely flocked to the region, which sports lakes, the peaks of the Cascade Mountains, and award-winning restaurants. But as they did so, they priced Bend’s working families out. According to a recent survey conducted by the Chamber of Commerce, more than 80 percent of Bend’s business owners said sky-high housing costs made it more difficult for them to hire and retain workers. Nearly 70 percent of business owners also said the inability to hire decreased their revenues.
“How can we expect businesses to thrive if they can’t even attract people here because there’s no where affordable and available to live? News flash, we can’t,” Brooks told the Globe. Her region of Central Oregon is about 11,000 homes short of their current need. “That’s more than what individual employers are able to handle.”
Brooks led the charge to launch the Chamber’s Workforce Housing Initiative, created a free streamlined guide to show people how to build an accessory dwelling unit on their own lot, and advocated to dismantle restrictive land use laws. Recently, the Chamber helped stand up a pilot project that assists local employees with their closing costs when purchasing a new home, and is subsidizing “workforce” homes for employees of local businesses.
This kind of effort, Brooks said, “should show how desperate employers are.” And it’s a lesson that Rhode Island businesses are learning.
While in front of the Bucklin Street home BCBSRI has spent months constructing, Carolyn Belisle, BCBSRI’s director of corporate responsibility, said she doesn’t want this project to be a “one and done” initiative.
“It may not feel like one house can make a difference in this very big problem,” said Belisle. “But it makes all the difference to the family who is moving in. So if we have to start by helping one family at a time, so be it.”