By Rep. Donna Walsh
I was recently elected to chair the new state commission created under legislation I sponsored in the General Assembly. The commission will be reviewing the progress of Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns in carrying out the mandate of Rhode Island’s Low and Moderate Income Housing Act of 2004 which requires every municipality’s housing stock to ensure by 2025 that at least 10% of its housing stock is affordable to people with low and moderate incomes.
The legislation provided municipalities with 21 years to achieve that goal. Now that we have just passed the midway point, this commission faces the important task of looking back at how we have done, what worked and what didn’t and what we need to do to provide housing for all our people.
Census data from 2010 shows that Rhode Island residents face the worst housing cost burden in New England. Study after study has shown that housing costs play a dominant role in decisions to stay or leave the state, especially among young, educated adults, and in attracting new businesses and jobs, an even bigger role than taxes.
To help heal our economy, we need to make it easier for people to afford to live here.
All Rhode Islanders know the economic crash and recession of 2007 hit Rhode Island very hard and we are far from recovered. The housing market took a terrible beating, leading to foreclosures, loss of equity and the depressing feeling many families experience when the value of their home is less than what they owe on their mortgage.
Even in relatively affluent South County with its median incomes ranging from $70,000 to $90,000, 1,200 South County families and 7,600 individuals have lived on incomes below the poverty rate in the past year. At least 142 homeless individuals report their last address was in South County.
These are among the many factors we have to consider in assessing the 2004 affordable housing legislation. In addition to high unemployment, rising poverty and foreclosures, we have suffered a string of natural disasters. Unemployment benefits have been cut, as have SNAP benefits, better known as Food Stamps. Cuts in federal funding for infrastructure, research and development threaten jobs at employers like Electric Boat and URI. The unwillingness of banks to make loans has further hampered economic recovery.
While some may argue that the economic downturn has created the unintended “benefit” of lowering home values and forcing more distressed properties onto the market – thus reducing, or even eliminating, the need for the state affordable housing mandate – we must understand the difference between “affordable housing” and “distressed properties.”
Distressed properties, whether they are bank-owned, sold by owners who lost their jobs and their ability to pay their mortgage, or abandoned by underwater homeowners, certainly have the effect of lowering overall home prices. However, that effect is more than matched by the needs of those former homeowners who are now looking for new and affordable places to live, creating even more demand for affordable rentals which are already in short supply.
In addition to the affordable housing legislation, there is the newly created Statewide Land Use 2025 Plan that requires municipalities to amend their affordable housing plans to be consistent and requires development to occur in urban and non-urban growth centers to reduce sprawl and protect water resources.
Since no legislation is perfect, I expect the Commission will hear many concerns over how the law has worked during its first decade of implementation. I am especially eager to hear from professional municipal planners since they have had the most practical experience with the law. I anticipate their suggestions for making the law work more effectively.
While the Commission carries on its work, we will be watching the progress of Statewide Planning’s efforts to develop a new long-term housing plan called Rhode Map RI. Any changes to the 2004 law will also need to take Statewide Planning’s work into account.
The next Statewide Planning Rhode Map RI meeting will take place in Richmond in January and I urge interested residents to watch for the notices and attend.
I am committed to ensuring that each Rhode Islander enjoys the right to affordable, accessible and safe housing. As a member of Charlestown’s Town Council (2004-06), I was liaison to the town’s Affordable Housing Commission when our town became the first and only municipality in the state to win voter approval for a $1 million bond to create affordable housing.
I also learned then and over the years, that affordable housing is a complex problem that often stirs emotional reactions and simplistic ideas. As chair of this Commission, I will insist that we focus on the facts, debunk the myths and look ahead toward the long-term needs of our citizens and the economy.
Rep. Walsh’s district includes all of Block Island and Charlestown, and parts of South Kingstown and Westerly.