PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Two reports released this week underscored a growing challenge for residents across Rhode Island: the high cost of housing.
Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island released a survey Wednesday showing nearly a quarter of respondents reported housing costs make it difficult to find a quality place to live. Nearly a third of respondents living in urban areas also said they are having a hard time paying for utilities, such as electric, heat and water.
And on Friday, Roger Williams University’s HousingWorks RI released its annual Housing Fact Book, showing there are no municipalities in the state where a family with a household income totaling $50,000 or less can affordably buy a home.
Households earning $70,000 or less can only affordably buy in four municipalities — Providence (excluding the East Side), Pawtucket, Woonsocket and Central Falls — and the opportunities are narrowing. For renters, tight vacancy rates along with a decline in permitting have driven up the cost of multifamily homes and subsequently rental prices.
“Rising home prices and rents, while generally benefiting current owners and landlords, remain a struggle for the average Rhode Island household,” the HousingWorks researchers wrote.
The report found over a third of Rhode Island households are spending more than 30% of their income on housing, topping the maximum amount financial experts recommend families should allocate to that cost.
Among that group of households, which HousingWorks defines as “cost burdened,” 43% are spending more half of their income on housing, making them “severely cost burdened. “
“HousingWorks RI estimates that this costly spending on housing means a loss to these households of nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars that could be going to supporting local businesses, and investments in their homes or their own wellbeing,” according to the researchers.
There are a myriad of factors fueling the high cost of housing, which is also happening in Massachusetts. But at the core of the issue is a lack of existing affordable housing and scant development of new inventory.
Last year, the production of long-term affordable homes was 22% less than in 2017, according to HousingWorks. Experts say that is having a detrimental effect on other parts of people’s lives, including their health.
“Stable, safe, and affordable homes are foundational to healthy and resilient communities where every resident has the opportunity to thrive,” the HousingWorks researchers wrote.
They added, “Housing affordability continues to be the baseline of accessibility for security a home from which to launch one’s life, and over the last several years extensive research has proven the value of home reaches beyond financial stability and into other key areas.”
The sentiment was echoed in the new “Rhode Island Life Index” report released by Blue Cross & Blue Shield, which the state’s largest health insurer put together to better understand health issues across the state.
“In short, many Rhode Islanders told us that they struggle to find affordable housing and jobs that pay well enough to ensure financial stability,” the Blue Cross report found.
During a conference Wednesday, the insurer announced a competitive grant program called BlueAngel Community Health Grants that will focus its next funding round on health issues related to housing challenges. Initial applications are due Nov. 14.
Rhode Island’s housing crunch is continuing despite multiple ballot initiatives focused on spurring greater housing production. Those have helped increase long-term spending on affordable housing to about $21.90 per capita, but HousingWorks argues the bond money isn’t enough.
Without earmarking at least $10 million to 15 million in annual funding, per capita spending will drop to less than $10 per capita, according to the researchers. And such a dramatic decrease would exacerbate the already growing challenges related to housing costs, along with related problems such as homelessness.
“A true commitment to continued development to fulfill the needs of the state’s residents will require more than the occasional passage of bond funding,” the researchers wrote, suggesting “a dedicated funding stream to provide annual capital.”
The Raimondo administration this week scheduled a public forum for Nov. 14 “to convene state leaders to explore how Rhode Island can position itself to meet the housing needs of Rhode Islanders while advancing the state economy.”
At the local level, most cities and towns are failing to meet a Rhode Island law that establishes a goal for all municipalities to have at least 10% of housing stock designed for low- and moderate-income households. (A more stringent law, known as 40B, exists in Massachusetts.)
HousingWorks reports only six of Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns meet the 10% goal: Burrillville (10%), Central Falls (11%), Newport (16%), New Shoreham (11%), Providence (15%) and Woonsocket (16%).