Published in Woonsocket Call on October 30, 2016
Earlier this year, Rhode Island Housing (RIH) released a 44 -page report detailing the Ocean State’s current and future housing needs. One thing was clear to those attending this event: over the next decade the state will need more affordable housing for its residents.
Over the last 7 months, RIH’s Executive Director Barbara Fields has crisscrossed the Ocean State calling for increased housing opportunities for working Rhode Islanders. During this period of time she has presented the study’s findings to more than a dozen civic and government groups, including AARP Rhode Island, the Providence City Council and United Way.
During the last legislative session Rhode Island housing advocates were successful in their push for the enactment of a bond initiative that would make a significant state investment in affordable housing. As part of the omnibus statewide budget package, a $50 million Housing Opportunity Bond initiative for housing programs was passed by the House and Senate chambers, ultimately to be signed into law by Governor Gina Raimondo (D) and put to voter approval on the November ballot.
With the November election fast approaching, Fields has not let her report, compiled by HousingWorks RI, a research program at Rogers Williams University, sit on a dusty shelf but is using it to push for passage of the housing bond initiatives.
RIH Releases its Comprehensive Housing Study
On April 6, Fields gathered with state housing advocacy groups at the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation to unveil RIH’s landmark housing study, Projecting Future Housing Needs. Fields warned that the state’s economic comeback must be tied to new and existing housing that stays within the financial reach of Rhode Islanders. “Today in Rhode Island, the demand for housing is high while the supply is much too low. This imbalance simply makes the cost of housing too expensive for what our residents earn. This report provides critical insight into what the future needs of Rhode Islanders will be and that information will allow us to develop a plan to address those needs,” she said.
At this event, Rhode Island Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor tied adequate housing for working Rhode Islanders as key to bringing businesses to the Ocean State. “Companies looking to expand or relocate consider how well they will be able to retain and attract their workforce, and a key part of doing so is ensuring that employees of all income levels have high quality housing opportunities,” said Pryor. “It’s vital to our state’s economic success and our quality of life that we preserve and produce high quality housing options for our residents,” he added.
The RIH report’s findings indicate that Rhode Island’s population is projected to grow between 3 and 5 percent from 2015 to 2025. Researchers warn that new housing demand will outpace population growth, and anticipate a 12 to 13 percent increase in the number of households, driven by a growing population and simultaneous decline in household size tied to both lower birth rates and an aging population. Researchers also predict housing demand will be driven by a large population growth in two demographic groups that tend to have lower incomes – namely aging baby boomers and seniors and young millennials.
According to the RIH report, cost burden problems of paying rent do not just impact older Rhode Islanders and Millennials, but have become more mainstream issues over the last ten years and now affect all income brackets. The findings found that Rhode Islanders already pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs, and that more than half of the increase in cost burden from 2000 to 2012 impacted households earning more than $57,700.
From 2000 to 2014, the researchers found that the state’s total population grew marginally at 0.11 percent, but the number of households grew by 0.28 percent. Rhode Island’s smaller household sizes are due, in part, to a larger proportion of older persons and a smaller proportion of persons of color when compared to national rates. Younger households are likely to have more people than those headed by people aged 65 and older, primarily because they are more likely to be family households with children. As this demographic shift continues, the future population will need more housing units to meet the increased household need caused by smaller household sizes typical of older householders.
Pushing for Passage of Question 7
Like Fields, Chris Hunter, campaign manager for the Yes On 7 Campaign, sees the RIH report’s findings as crucial information that voters need to know about the impending housing crisis. “As Rhode Island Housing’s recent report shows, we’re simply not creating enough new housing to meet projected population growth. At the same time we’re facing an affordability crunch as our young workers just starting their careers, families, veterans, and seniors are having a difficult time paying for housing while also making ends meet,” says Hunter.
“That’s why Question 7 and the $50 million Housing Opportunity bond is such a smart investment in housing and Rhode Island’s economy,” says Hunter, stressing that if approved by the voters the $50 million bond initiative will leverage an additional $160 million in federal and private investments.
According to Hunter, if approved, $40 million of the bond dollars will be allocated to the construction of affordable homes and apartments across Rhode Island, while the remaining $10 million will be used to help cities and towns revitalize blighted and foreclosed properties. The bond will also fund the construction of 800 affordable homes and apartments across Rhode Island and create 1,700 good paying local construction jobs.
Over 60 percent of Rhode Island voters passed housing bond initiatives in put on the ballot in 2006 ($50 million) and 2012 ($25 million), says Hunter. “Funding from these last two affordable housing bonds created 1,943 affordable units in 30 communities around the state, and leveraged more than $300 million in federal and private investment in these projects,” he says.
RIH‘s housing report has sounded the alarm, giving a stark warning to local and state officials that a housing crisis exists and will only get worse with the shifting of the state’s demographics. With the election looming, RIH’s Fields continues to push for passage on Question 7. Hunter works to mobilize his housing advocates and supporters of Question 7 to get the word out to every voter in Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns that this bond initiative must be passed. Hopefully, their message will get across to Rhode Island voters. We’ll see when the votes are counted.
For more details on Question 7, visit http://www.yeson7ri.com.
Herb Weiss, LRI’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.