Rhode Island has a serious housing crisis, and every municipality has an obligation to help solve this statewide problem. However, some of the housing laws adopted in the last legislative session are not consistent with long-standing state policies. There will be unintended consequences, and these laws will not fully achieve the intended objective of creating more low- and moderate-income housing.
The creation of more housing should follow the vision established in the State Land Use Plan 2025 that calls for future growth to be concentrated within areas where development could be adequately served by public water, sewers, mass transportation and other supporting infrastructure. All cities and towns are required to be consistent with this plan. In areas without supporting infrastructure, the state established policies for low density development with clustered growth, where appropriate, to conserve our essential natural resources.
The Land Use Plan also has clear policies to protect invaluable drinking water supplies that Rhode Island needs to sustain growth statewide. All the sites identified by the RI Statewide Planning Program to support high residential densities in Rhode Island were located within areas with supporting infrastructure. This very comprehensive and thoughtful approach to growth would direct development where it was most suitable to avoid negative impacts to the environment and community character, and to maintain the natural, cultural, and recreational assets that make Rhode Island an attractive place to live, work, and play.
Several of the housing laws adopted last year will encourage haphazard density that does not comply with existing state policies.
One law allows existing commercial buildings to be converted for residential use and restricts local authority. A density of 15 dwelling units per acre is allowed by law. A mandated density of 15 units per acre in areas without supporting infrastructure is excessive and is not consistent with state land use policies. This can randomly add density to land that does not have an adequate amount of drinking water from onsite wells and can’t support more development without negative impacts to water quality.
The Land Development and Subdivision Review act was changed to place a new burden on an already taxed municipal planning staff. The responsibilities of town planners have increased significantly and the time to review and approve applications has decreased. Development projects that were previously reviewed in an open and public meeting will now be approved by an administrative officer without any public input. This policy is a step backward for gaining the public’s trust in the land development process.
An amendment to the existing law to encourage more low- and moderate-income housing (LMI) has backfired. It has encouraged towns to repeal existing LMI ordinances. The new LMI law allows more market rate housing making it impossible for municipalities to meet their 10 percent low and moderate income housing mandates.
The need for more housing should be done comprehensively and be implemented by considering all the other issues municipalities are required to assess in accordance with the RI Comprehensive Planning and Land Use Regulation Act.
To be successful in creating more housing, Rhode Island must have strong partnerships between state and municipal governments, the private sector and nonprofits. Establishing inflexible state mandates does not foster good partnerships. Municipalities need financial and technical assistance to establish creative approaches to housing that must be customized to meet unique municipal needs.
Changes to the existing land use statutes will not be effective without comprehensively addressing all the economic and other issues that have caused the housing crisis.
Each of our cities and towns have unique characteristics. By working together, Rhode Island can solve the housing crisis and revise existing legislation in a way that appreciates the nuances of each community to maintain our beautiful state of Rhode Island.
Scott Millar is an environmental scientist and land use planner.