Rhode Island faces racial disparities in the percentage of cost-burdened homeowner households and an increase in homelessness over the last four years, according to policy organization HousingWorks RI’s 2023 housing fact book.
The Herald spoke to experts in the field to illuminate the context behind the group’s latest report.
“The major takeaway is that we are not making progress,” said Melina Lodge, executive director of the Housing Network of Rhode Island, a member association of non-profit housing developers in the state. “Every year it seems like we are getting worse and worse at housing affordability.”
In 2023, only five of Rhode Island’s 39 communities met the state-sanctioned goal that 10% of every city or town’s housing stock be low- or moderate-income housing, according to the fact book.
The report also found a 72% increase in homelessness and a 370% increase in people unsheltered since 2019.
Juan Espinoza, communications and development manager at the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness, said the end of pandemic-era protections, such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Eviction Moratorium, which was struck down by the Supreme Court in August 2021, could explain some of the increase in homelessness. Organizations like Crossroads Rhode Island also used hotels as temporary shelters during the pandemic.
“The pandemic laid bare some of the issues in our system,” Espinoza said.
“At the same time, we also saw the housing market (prices) increase drastically,” Espinoza said. As a result, the increase in the rates of homelessness has outpaced the rise in the number of shelter beds over the past four years, he said.
Espinoza also emphasized the need for specialized shelters such as family shelters and couple’s shelters. “Not having enough of those specialized units to meet folks with different needs makes it a lot harder to keep people out of the street,” Espinoza said.
Espinoza added that more affordable housing is the long-term solution, while shelters only address short-term needs.
Brenda Clement, executive director of HousingWorks RI, said the state has not been sufficiently increasing the housing stock for decades. She said that current zoning is a barrier for developers looking to build more housing. According to the fact book, much of Rhode Island’s land is zoned for single-family use.
“Most of (the zoning and land use laws) have been on the books for 40-, 50-plus years and haven’t been significantly revised in that timeframe.”
“We are a small state; we have limited opportunities for development,” Lodge said, adding that the state needs to “leverage” development opportunities “on every single lot in order to address the housing need.”
The fact book also found that Black and Hispanic homeowner households suffer the highest rates of owner-housing cost burdens, at 37% and 39% respectively, meaning that they dedicate over 30% of their income to paying for housing.
“If you’re a Rhode Islander of color, you’re not making as much as your white counterpart,” Espinoza said.
The cost of housing limits where people are able to live.
“Based on data, we see Black and brown families settling in communities where housing is more affordable,” Lodge said. “We don’t see the same racial diversity in more expensive communities than we see in our urban core.”
Lodge emphasized the need to approach the housing crisis with an equity lens. “We need to be strategic about who needs housing in our state and how we build housing that can meet their needs,” she said.
The Rhode Island Zoning Atlas, released concurrently with the fact book by HousingWorks RI, allows people to visualize zoning in the state.
“If a third of the lots that are zoned single-family become multi-family, what does the numerical impact of that shift translate to?” Lodge asked. “The Zoning Atlas really gives us some of the data or the ability to get to the data that we need to make some informed policy decisions.”
The fact book was released just several months before a brand new suite of state housing legislation will take effect in January, The Herald previously reported. The legislation will streamline the housing development permitting process, encourage transit-oriented development and make it easier for adaptive reuse of existing buildings like schools.
“I think that the Speaker’s package is not specific to increasing affordable housing, but it is talking about how to improve the pipeline for residential development across the board,” Lodge said.
Lodge said that streamlining the housing development process and preventing delays will help reduce costs. “Every time something gets more expensive, it gets more difficult to produce housing that is affordable, because your costs are constantly going up,” Lodge said.
“It’s really too early to tell if (the housing package) is going to have a significant impact,” Clement said. “But we think it’s a step in the right direction. We think that it opens up conversations and opens up discussions at the local level about where growth makes sense.”
“This is going to be a shift for municipalities for sure,” said Lodge about the recent housing legislation. “I’m assuming there’s going to be some growing pains with that as a whole, but we can’t continue to expect different outcomes doing exactly the same thing.”