R.I. organizations align to offer safe, efficient housing

Alliance of community groups, nonprofits brings attention to household environmental concerns

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, September 15, 2014

“Sometimes it’s the genius of just putting together these pieces,” said U.S. Rep. David Cicilline ’83, D-R.I., of the four nonprofit and private Rhode Island organizations that form the Rhode Island Alliance for Healthy Homes.

A group of national and state politicians, bureaucrats, business leaders and community members gathered in the State Room at the Rhode Island Statehouse Friday afternoon to celebrate the press launch of the Rhode Island Alliance for Healthy Homes, a partnership of local agencies and organizations that aims to provide safe housing in the state.

RIAHH comprises nonprofit and private organizations throughout the state — including Green and Healthy Homes Initiative Rhode Island, Rhode Island Energy Efficiency Resource Management Council, Rhode Island Housing, Inc. and the Rhode Island Foundation — that play a role in providing housing and services to Rhode Island homeowners, according to a GHHI Rhode Island press release. RIAHH will work to “effectively align, braid and coordinate information, resources and services to improve health, safety and energy efficiency of all Rhode Island homes,” according to the press release.

GHHI Rhode Island, an initiative that originated in the Office of the Vice President, coordinated the RIAHH partnership, said Mark Kravatz, outcome broker for GHHI who organizes different agencies and businesses in the state, at the meeting. Kravatz, who presented along with Ruth Ann Norton, the president and CEO of GHHI and Elizabeth Tobin-Tyler, steering committee chairperson for RIAHH, announced the sites all around Rhode Island will be combined into GHHI’s first statewide site.

Due to the limited funding that is available to help people get access to more energy-efficient and environmentally safe homes, housing organizations in Rhode Island have to turn away clients or defer them to other programs. RIAHH aims to combine the interests of multiple organizations in combatting environmental concerns like mold, asbestos, lead, pests, fire and carbon monoxide, as well as negative health impacts from tobacco smoke, asthma and household injuries by seeking joint funding from public and private businesses, Norton said.

“Unhealthy and inefficient housing” — including costs from lead poisoning, asthma and at-home injuries among the elderly — accounts for about 3 percent, or $82.4 billion, of national health care costs, according to a GHHI brochure distributed at the launch.

RIAHH plans to synthesize these diverse interests by homogenizing data collection among RIAHH members, training and organizing the healthy housing workforce better and making measurements of progress accessible to the public, Norton said.

Rhode Island will experience an “energy crisis” given that energy costs have escalated by 12 percent, making RIAHH’s work especially critical for the coming year, said Marion Gold, commissioner of the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources. As a result, energy costs are expected to rise 14 percent over the next year. Heating inefficient homes will become even more expensive but weatherizing houses to combat this will help struggling, low-income homeowners.

The funding for RIAHH comes from two main sources: the RIF, an organization that provides scholarships, grants and funding for various non-profits around the state and the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General. The RIF has committed over $265,000 to GHHI Rhode Island over the past five years, said Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the foundation. The Rhode Island OAG has allocated over $550,000 to RIAHH, Norton said.

The funding from the Office of the Attorney General under former Attorney General U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., came from a lawsuit that the state of Rhode Island joined, along with several other state governments, against several American Electric Power plants in Midwestern states that were polluting New England air, said Attorney General Peter Kilmartin. The OAG parceled out money won in that lawsuit to other causes, including RIAHH, Kilmartin added.

AEP settled for $4.6 billion of payments and pollution cuts for all 16 of its power plants in October 2007, according to a Whitehouse press release. Rhode Island received a little under $2 million from the settlement. “We’ve really gotten a lot out of these funds, especially in saving taxpayer dollars,” Kilmartin said. Other projects funded by the settlement include windmills and solar panels at RIPTA.

Whitehouse was in attendance for the press launch along with other members of the congressional delegation, including U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., and U.S. Rep. David Cicilline ’83, D-R.I.

“We do good things in Rhode Island. We are small, but we can do very intensely forward-thinking things,” Whitehouse said at the launch.

In Rhode Island, “everyone knows everyone, so when we have a good idea, it really travels quickly,” Langevin said.

“Sometimes it’s the genius of just putting together these pieces,” Cicilline said, adding that “it requires this incredible partnership among many agencies, among many levels of government, all working together to produce better outcomes.”

Representatives from the OAG and RIF, the two major sources of funding for RIAHH, also spoke at the launch.

“When you can get a project like this to come into Rhode Island, it’s an honor and a pleasure and a no-brainer to fund it,” Kilmartin said.

Both Kilmartin and Steinberg also noted the new permanent supportive housing partnership between the Sojourner House and Smith Hill Community Development Corporation, which will provide apartments and services for victims of domestic violence.

RIAHH’s business plan was put together by three Brown University graduate students, Amber Ma GS, Kelsey Sherman GS and Mina Zhu GS.

Brown undergraduates also contributed over 2,000 hours of work in creating a housing database for Rhode Island citizens to easily access, Tobin-Tyler said. Jeremy Wortzel ’16 coordinated more than 55 students, who spent the past two summers researching different agencies and organizations aimed at helping low-income homeowners upgrade their homes to make them healthy and energy-efficient. Wortzel also created the Healthy Housing Hub under the emPOWER umbrella of student organizations. Kravatz heavily praised the students’ work, and several students who attended the event, including Wortzel, received a round of applause for the work they did.

Wortzel said that after spending the summer of 2013 putting together a 700-page document full of information, he and Kravatz realized that the information needed to be more accessible and readable. They are now working with Code for America to produce a publicly accessible online database,, to be released in coming months, Wortzel said.


A previous version of this article stated that the Rhode Island Foundation contributed $265,000 to the Rhode Island Alliance for Healthy Homes over the past five years. In fact, the money went to Green and Healthy Homes Initiative Rhode Island, a member of the alliance. The Herald regrets the error.