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COMMENTARY

Amid housing crisis, R.I. must adapt existing structures to meet the moment

It is essential that existing non-residential properties are converted to house many R.I. communities, and that the new Adaptive Reuse law is not used as a means to create only luxury housing

AHF and its Healthy Housing Foundation hosted a grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony for New Hope, a 60-unit Single Room Occupancy building at the site of the old Leland Hotel on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles in September. The building, constructed in 1904, sat vacant for years before AHF purchased the property in 2022 and, through adaptive reuse, refurbished it as housing for low-income and unhoused people.Mark Von Holden/Associated Press

Like much of the United States, Rhode Island is facing a housing crisis. While there are several contributing factors, the driving issue is supply and demand. In Rhode Island, demand greatly outpaces supply across all levels of housing, whether residents are looking to rent or to buy.

For example, a recent report notes that rents in Providence have risen more in the past year than anywhere else in the country. In Newport, housing growth has averaged just one home per year for two decades.

State Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor knows this all too well, noting in a recent interview that “Rhode Island arguably has the worst of the housing crisis” due to dead-last in the nation production, a dubious statistic that, in most cases, can be traced to incongruent and restrictive municipal zoning laws.

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While a collection of recently-passed legislation is likely to spur new home construction in the long term, one particular part of that package could be deployed immediately, setting in motion significant opportunities for new housing options throughout the state: the “Adaptive Reuse” bill.

Adaptive Reuse allows for developers to repurpose existing, non-residential infrastructure into housing. Examples include mills, churches, shopping centers, schools and even farm buildings. The arguments for this law are sound: such infrastructure is often well-built and well-situated, usually connected to “last mile” energy, water, sewer and transportation lines, and converting such spaces will give new life to blighted and underutilized properties.

However, it is essential that such properties are converted in a diversified manner, to serve a multitude of R.I. communities, and that Adaptive Reuse is not used as a means to create more luxury lofts.

In my life, I have often resided in adaptively reused spaces, including my current work-live space in a repurposed brewery building in Providence.

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During the 10 years I lived in New York as a working musical artist, I partnered with property owners to turn abandoned or overlooked spaces into vibrant homes and communities. Among these residencies were a portion of an active pickle factory, a church that had been closed after parish consolidation, an abandoned garage, a large factory building whose original intent was lost to globalization, and the basement of a furniture manufacturing plant. All of these spaces provided me with a home and studio, and in most cases, sparked similar conversion in the same or neighboring buildings, which in turn, gave birth to communities.

Most of the buildings were not originally zoned for residential use. However, in redesigning them, all proper protocols were deployed, including fire suppression, ventilation and pest abatement. Eventually, the city rezoned each of them into mixed-use facilities, and today, they are centerpieces of vast communities in formerly industrial neighborhoods. By virtue of being situated in industrial areas, the new spaces did not directly encroach on existing communities.

I share these anecdotes for good reason: as Rhode Island prepares to undertake the serious work of expanding its housing stock, and adaptive reuse efforts get under way, developers, municipalities and state regulators working to convert non-residential properties must do so responsively and inclusively, to create safe, dynamic housing options.

The major shortage of artist housing in Rhode Island could be addressed by repurposing more of the state’s post-Industrial Revolution buildings into live-work spaces for artists, designers and musicians. There is a vast shortage of senior housing in the state: Why not convert ground-floor level shopping plazas into senior apartment communities? Folks who want to “get out of the city” might be happy to reside in a tastefully repurposed barn, although this example may fall under the yet-to-be-passed legislation around accessory dwelling units.

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Every municipality in the state has at least one piece of infrastructure that can be adapted to address the needs of residents seeking affordable and middle-class housing, as well as specialty work-live spaces. So, why not expedite this process?

In deploying Adaptive Reuse, developers will be faced with many unique opportunities to convert old infrastructure into high-end, luxury properties. While there is a need for some such conversions, it is important that, in this moment of crisis, the vast majority of Adaptive Reuse be targeted for people who need an affordable place to call home. It is urgent that developers resist the temptation to expand only the state’s luxury property portfolio, and regulators at the state and municipal levels must do their part to inspire alternative, inclusive options.

Bill Bartholomew is a talk radio and podcast host, journalist and musician based in Providence, RI. Email him at Bill@RIpodcast.com