PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – There’s little disagreement among Democratic primary voters that the cost of housing is a big concern in Rhode Island, an exclusive 12 News/Roger Williams University poll released Tuesday shows.

The survey of 400 likely Rhode Island Democratic primary voters shows 91% of respondents said the cost of buying or renting a home in Rhode Island is a serious problem, with 60% calling it “very serious.” By comparison, only about 7% said the problem was not too serious or not serious at all.

“That number is very high – higher than I personally expected,” said 12 News political analyst Joe Fleming, who conducted the poll. “You can see the prices of housing going up everywhere. You see the rental prices going up all the time, so people think it’s a very serious issue.”

The cellphone and landline interview poll was conducted between May 9 and May 12 by Fleming & Associates of Cumberland, R.I. The survey has an overall margin of sampling error of plus or minus approximately 4.9 percentage points. Fleming has been conducting polls for WPRI 12 since 1984.

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The issue of housing as been at the forefront of public discussions for months in Rhode Island. It has emerged as a top priority among leaders at the State House, as renters and buyers report having trouble finding affordable places to live across income brackets.

Limited housing supply paired with rising costs has spurred robust and often expensive competition in the buying market, driving up prices even more.

“If you own a home you get richer every day,” said Richard Godfrey, executive director of the Cummings Institute for Real Estate at Roger Williams University. “If you’re renting or you’re trying to buy a home, that barrier to buying a home gets further and further away.”

On the apartment side, a Target 12 review of data from a half-dozen firms that track rents found all showed double-digit increases in the Providence metropolitan area. The real estate website Zillow shows rent for the typical apartment in the region was nearly $1,800 in March, up from just under $1,400 three years ago — a 24% increase since before the pandemic.

For buyers, the median price of a single-family home in Rhode Island hit $385,000 in April, up 15% from a year earlier, according to the R.I. Association of Realtors.

Godfrey said the Federal Reserve’s move to raise interest rates as part of the battle against inflation has only made it harder for buyers.

“If you’re going to buy a home tomorrow it’ll probably cost you about twice as much per month as it did a year ago,” he said. “That’s huge.”

The 12 News/RWU poll shows housing costs are a concern among Democratic primary voters across age groups, gender and political affiliation. Women were slightly more concerned than men and self-identified Democrats narrowly edged out self-identified independents. But rarely did fewer than 90% of respondents across all groups find the issue of concern.

The poll excludes Republican and independent voters who said they planned to vote in the GOP primary — as well as voters skipping the Sept. 13 primary altogether — so the numbers might look somewhat different if the question was posed to the entire population.

Still, Fleming said it’s clearly a big issue on the minds of many voters today. The poll separately shows 36% of primary voters say the single most important issue for them in this year’s election for governor is the cost of living, which includes rising home and apartment prices.

“It’s a big, serious issue,” Fleming said. “Democrats are always concerned about housing and I think that’s why the number is so high.”

When 12 News and RWU asked a similar question of all voters four years ago, in 2018, 78% of self-identified Democrats called the cost of housing a very or somewhat serious problem at the time. While the results of the two surveys are not directly comparable, they suggest frustration has only grown.

Godfrey said Rhode Island’s small size means state and local leaders should be creative about where to build additional housing. As an example, he suggested looking for opportunities to build apartments in commercial areas like Route 2 in Warwick or the Quonset Business Park in North Kingstown.

“If we were to allow two- and three-story construction with apartments above, the parking could be used for both residents and shoppers, people could walk to shop … if we worked smartly and said, ‘OK, let’s free up the private sector to address this issue,’ we could solve a lot of the problems without damaging any more rural or environmentally sensitive lands,” he said.

Lawmakers are currently considering a proposal by Gov. Dan McKee to allocate $250 million of Rhode Island’s federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to housing. But Godfrey warned that could just be a Band-Aid due to the scale of the problem.

“That $250 million — that’s a quarter of a billion dollars — will only provide about 1,000 homes,” he said. “That’s less than 5% of the need.”

“That’s generally government’s reaction,” Godfrey added. “We need to stop throwing money at the problem and start changing the way we do business.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Kim Kalunian (kkalunian@wpri.com) is a reporter and anchor for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.

Ted Nesi, Tim White and Amanda Pitts contributed to this report.