Affordable Housing Crisis: Learn From Rhode Island?s Mistakes, A Study In How To Do It Wrong!

By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press

The late Tip O’Neill, the commanding Cambridge Democrat, a summer resident of Harwich, and legendary Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, once declared that all politics is local. The maxim has become a staple, to the point of a cliché, in political discourse today, but never is this more at play than over the thorny issue of affordable housing. Even in a slow spring real estate market on Cape Cod and in Boston’s suburbs, as temperatures push into the 70s and 80s, the cost of housing is chilling—giving the term “affordable housing,” once a reference to the plight of the lower class, entirely new meaning.

There was a time not too long ago when apprentice teachers, nurses and even newspaper scribes, could afford a first home. Not today. Now you must be a brain surgeon, with the pay of one and the gray matter to maneuver through a risky real estate market that can swallow one whole, if overextended. There is no relief in slight. From Brewster to Boston, cities and towns have been reticent to get smart when it comes to providing “affordable housing,” or housing at discounted prices to meet the critical needs of both middle and lower income families. Overstated concerns about density, traffic and community character have closed the doors throughout Massachusetts to innovative housing projects—forcing many prospective homeowners to flee with their inspirations and talents to places like North Carolina, Virginia and Florida.

The goal throughout New England is a standard 10 percent “affordable housing” stock, an objective with all the clout of parents lecturing their high school seniors not to drink on weekends. A look south to Rhode Island painfully underscores what is wrong with our approach to affordable housing.

In a political statue of liberty play to New England corporations (give me your young, your hungry and your multi-talented, and I will give them jobs), Rhode Island Gov. Donald L. Carcieri has set an administration objective of creating 20,000 jobs under his watch. It’s a great six o’clock sound bite, but with no execution to it. Simply put, there is no housing that is affordable in Rhode Island to shelter these new hires, causing some in the state to wonder in jest if the governor expects these new recruits to live under a bridge like trolls. At present, individuals or families earning $50,000-to-$100,000 a year either cannot qualify for financing or are having much difficulty getting a mortgage. The problem is exacerbated in communities like Smithfield, Exeter and South Kingston, which offer new jobs but no realistic housing for them. If this issue is not addressed soon, the economy of the Ocean State will begin to implode, curbing a steady flow of good-paying jobs into Rhode Island communities from companies looking to expand like Fidelity, Bank of America and Bristol-Meyers Squibb.

With empathy for Gov. Carcieri, State Sen. John C. Revens, D-Warwick, who has served on the Senate Judiciary Committee, notes, “The problem is simple, the solution is complex. Revens said there is no across-the-board constituency for “affordable housing” in Rhode Island—both in the General Assembly and at the local level—because communities don’t want such projects in their back yards. “So these communities legislate against them locally with zoning restrictions and mortoriums on public water and sewer connections. It’s all done in the name of preserving community character, but actually it’s growth control under the guise of aesthetics. And no politician in state leadership is willing to take up the issue head on.”

Present company included. Without a change in attitudes, Revens acknowledged, it’s a zero sum political game.

Few in Rhode Island would disagree that providing affordable housing is a vital issue, but no one from Carcieri, the legislature and on down wants to juggle this hot political spud. What is sorely needed, said Revens, are new land use regulations to encourage, and in some places, direct communities to address the dilemma, which at present shows no sign of abating. The solution, he added, is not a politically favorable one. “It needs to come from both the top down and the bottom up,” he said, noting it requires a non-partisan leadership of the governor and General Assembly working together on equitable solutions. “And people at the grassroots have to motivate the politicians. They need to embrace the issue of affordable housing, and tell the governor and General Assembly that this is a severe problem and to fix it!”

There is too much at stake to ignore it. Consider the realities, which have redefined “affordable housing.” Needy, in Rhode Island, is now a relative word:

  • A household earning $50,000-a-year can no longer afford a home in any Rhode Island community, notes a recent HousingWorksRI study. And households earning $100,000 annually can afford a modest home in only half of Rhode Island’s communities
  • Bright college graduates from Brown, Providence College and other area colleges are leaving Rhode Island by the thousands because they cannot afford to live here, draining the state’s educated work force.
  • And so companies once considering expanding here or relocating to Rhode Island are now looking elsewhere, like to the southeast and southwest where workers can afford housing as a result of thoughtful land use and zoning regulations. The medium price of a single-family home in Greater Providence is close to $300,000; in rural Exeter it’s about $400,000—an annual increase of about 25 percent. By comparison, in the Raleigh, NC area the medium home price is $197,000.
  • The housing shortage is expected to worsen. Rhode Island’s population is growing four times faster than its housing stock. At least 1200 people who stayed in the state emergency shelters in the last year were employed! And of the 50,000 new jobs projected by 2010, about 24,000—48 percent—will pay wages too low to even rent a two-bedroom apartment, given the rising cost of housing.

Many are weighing in on the problem now, supporting a proposed plan to build 5,000 affordable housing units over the next five years. Housing advocates are seeking to jump start the plan by asking voters this fall to approve a $75 million state bond issue to build, renovate and rehabilitate houses that Rhode Islanders can afford.

The affordable housing issue is spilling over into the middle class and threatens to swamp it, said a spokesman for the Rhode Island Housing and Mortgage Finance Corporation in a recent interview with East Bay Newspapers “I think people have to realize that housing is not affordable to anyone anymore,” added Steve Ostiguy, executive director of Church Community Housing, which is responsible for many affordable housing projects. “There is no community in which the average family can purchase a home anymore.”

Officials and housing advocates agree that Rhode Island’s economy will suffer dramatically if working people—school teachers, policemen, fireman, municipal workers, and professionals—cannot afford a place to live.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, for every ten jobs created in a local economy, seven new housing units are needed to support the increase. To date, building permits issued in Rhode Island fall short of meeting Gov. Carcieri’s job creation goal by thousands of homes.

“How can this state grow if we cannot even meet our current demand for affordable housing, never mind adding new jobs and homes,” Stephen Olsen, who heads the Rhode Island Builders Association, said recently.

The answer is you can’t get there from here.

No doubt, the construction of thousands of homes and apartments would have a significant impact on the housing shortage in Rhode Island. So why not remove some of the barriers to construction, the North Kingston and East Greenwich Independent asked in a recent editorial. “Communities that continue to hang on to the building permit caps, while forming committees to study the affordable housing problem are wasting their time,” the paper said. “A more lenient regulatory climate could be accomplished without damaging the environment and it could be done for a limited period of time, until the supply of housing is more in balance with the demand.”

Concedes Providence Journal writer John Kostrzewa in a column headlined: Affordable Housing, Jobs Go Together, “The steep (home) price appreciation—while making Rhode Island homeowners house rich—has over the year already done much damage. It’s hurt companies’ plans to create jobs, and it’s locked many people out of owning a home.”

All politics, Gov. Carcieri, is local, and if you look hard enough, you might find the political and grassroots support to fix this. As Tip O’Neill might say, “The Ayes have it!”

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