It’s the heart of winter in Rhode Island, and this year’s legislative session is under way, temperatures are some of the lowest of the year, and more than 4,000 Rhode Islanders will be seeking shelter across the state, in desperate need of a place to live. Rhode Island has ranked last in the country in recent years when it comes to housing construction per capita. That has resulted in a record increase in rents in Providence, outpacing every other city nationwide, as well as population loss in picturesque towns like Narragansett, and a nearly 400 percent increase in unsheltered Rhode Islanders.
Years in the making, many factors have led to this sobering reality, from the collapse of the housing market in 2007 to an influx of newcomers from Metro Boston, but none have had a stronger impact than zoning ordinances.
Laws enacted at the local level, varying from town to town, have all but barred the construction of homes in most of Rhode Island’s 39 communities without costly variances, often at the mercy of abutters. The result is a dearth of homes being built, save for huge, expensive condominium developments and McMansion-style sprawl in our remaining farmland, forests, and along flood-prone waterways.
Layers of restrictions in Rhode Island’s building code exert further pressure, inhibiting construction of new housing. Rhode Island has some of the oldest housing stock in the country, which is prone to loss of housing units. The state’s building code — with requirements on the placement of staircases and prohibitively expensive sprinkler systems — effectively prevents construction of new condos and apartments in the communities that need them most.
As state legislators convene in Providence to address the housing crisis, notice the “missing middle” in our own backyards. Gaining popularity, the “accessory dwelling unit” — “granny flats” in garages and basements, backyard cottages and tiny houses — provided much needed housing choices in every community, until they were outlawed in many places in the middle of last century. Our current housing crunch and the lack of available land has brought common-sense legalization of ADUs to the forefront, and ADUs can add homes to a neighborhood without changing its character.
The housing crisis is affecting everyone, from new college grads to aging empty nesters to employers looking to hire. Making it possible to build accessory dwelling units by-right makes sense for the smallest state. Land is a precious commodity, and Rhode Island has just 1,200 square miles of it. Allowing homeowners to build for their inlaws and friends will enable Rhode Islanders to age in place, in our communities, and could relieve pressure on single-family homes. Furthermore, with the increased demand for living space pushing further out from the Providence area and threatening forests, wetlands and farms, ADUs are becoming a valuable tool in preserving what little open space remains.
Rhode Islanders are proudly stubborn and independent minded; a tradition predating the United States that has secured Little Rhody’s existence over the centuries. Today’s challenges can be met with small common-sense reforms, and the help of a friendly neighbor.
Greg Miller is a director and treasurer at Neighbors Welcome! Rhode Island, a grassroots network working to make housing options accessible to residents of every city and town, at every stage of life.