In an effort to address Rhode Island’s housing crisis, Rhode Island House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Warwick) announced a 14-bill package that includes legislation to eliminate rental application fees, amend previous legislation related to accessory dwelling units and streamline the permitting process for low- and moderate-income housing.
The package, introduced in early March, seeks to “streamline” the process of proposing, applying for and building housing, especially affordable housing, Shekarchi said in an interview with The Herald. Nine of the bills were heard in committee in the State House of Representatives last week.
One key tool the package uses to simplify the process is creating a single permitting process statewide rather than the current 39 separate processes for each municipality, he said — in addition to seperately eliminating one of the three current steps required for permitting in Rhode Island.
Speeding up the appeals process on decisions made by local review boards is another central priority of Shekarchi’s legislation, eliminating the State Housing Appeals Board and sending all complaints immediately to a county’s superior court. “Time is one of the biggest enemies in a project,” he said, citing the failure of the Fane Tower development plan as an example of a project that did not come to fruition due to a lengthy permitting and judicial process.
Building the fewest new houses per capita in the United States in 2021, Rhode Island has struggled to provide affordable housing for its residents. The legislative package, Shekarchi said, seeks to change that “unacceptable” statistic.Currently, Rhode Island lacks low-income housing, housing for people experiencing homelessness, market-rate housing and more, Shekarchi added.
Brenda Clement, director of HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University, said that building permits peaked in Rhode Island during the mid-1980s with about 7,500 permits per year. In 2008, the number of permits Rhode Island issued declined sharply from 1,938 to 1,058, dipping to its low point of 700 permits in 2011. After hovering near the 1,000 permit mark for much of the 2010s, the state issued 1,392 permits in 2021.
“We have been underproducing units at all income levels, but particularly at the lower-income level for a long, long period of time,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of catch-up work to do.”
“At lower income levels … the competition for (limited housing) units becomes much harder,” Clement added. “That’s why we see year-long waiting lists for public housing.”
Public dialogue and pushback
This legislative package came partially as the result of the work done by three legislative commissions focused on housing and land use, according to Shekarchi.
The Special Legislative Commission to Study the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act looks at barriers to affordable housing, while the Special Legislative Commission to Study the Entire Area of Land Use, Preservation, Development, Housing, Environment and Regulation examines how the state can use land in a way that promotes “sustainable and equitable economic growth.” A third commission led by State Rep. Thomas Noret (D–Coventry) examines surplus land the state may have.
Opening up dialogue around housing issues to the public played an “important role in paving the way for this legislation to be introduced,” wrote commission member Melina Lodge, executive director of the Housing Network of Rhode Island, in an email to The Herald. The Housing Network of Rhode Island is “committed to the development of affordable housing,” according to its website.
Before the release of the legislative package, a handful of rural towns — including Exeter, Foster, Scituate, Glocester, Richmond, Hopkinton and West Greenwich — indicated their opposition to what they call an “oppressive state legislature,” The Valley Breeze reported. Specifically, the towns cited concerns that the package would override local zoning ordinances and install requirements for low- and moderate-income housing.
Shekarchi noted that the package was designed to minimize the burden on the state and preserve local control; overriding local control was “never the intent,” he added.
But he added that some people are still resistant to construction in their neighborhoods: “Everybody wants housing, but nobody wants it in their backyard.” And low-income housing is particularly challenging to build support for, he said, due to inaccurate and negative stereotypes surrounding low-income residents. Shekarchi noted that he hopes education and press coverage will help combat what he described as misconceptions.
Building on top of a foundation
“It’s refreshing to have a speaker in the House who is focusing so much on housing in Rhode Island,” said Margaux Morisseau, deputy director of the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness.
But Morisseau said she still hopes to see legislation pass that provides immediate solutions for people experiencing homelessness. Bills that the coalition supports would create a tenants’ bill of rights, implement payday lending reform and set requirements for advance notice from landlords regarding rent hikes. Another bill would place limitations on the use of certain criminal records and credit history reports to deny housing to applicants, she said.
Shekarchi said that while this specific package is effectively complete, he is generally supportive of introducing more legislation to address the housing crisis.
“This is a building block in the foundation,” he said. “There’ll be another package if I’m speaker next year, (and) those two commissions will continue to work hard to address these issues.”