1. In the late 1980s, Rhode Island was building nearly 5,000 new housing units annually. In the 1990s and early 2000s it was about 2,500 new units a year; since then it has dropped to only about 1,000. Now, the results of this generation-long decline in housing production are all around us. Today the typical single-family home in Rhode Island costs a family over $400,000, and the president of the Realtors warned this week that the state’s housing shortage has “reached a critical level.” For the second year in a row, Governor McKee and his team are spending the final weeks of the year dealing with homeless tents at the front of the State House, forced to activate National Guard personnel a week before Christmas to turn the Cranston Street Armory into a shelter. As Jerusalem Demsas wrote in a must-read Atlantic piece this week, “housing markets have been broken by a policy agenda that seeks to reap the gains of a thriving regional economy while failing to build the infrastructure — housing — necessary to support the people who make that economy go.” The worsening crisis is putting more pressure on the state’s first-ever housing secretary, Josh Saal, who was appointed by McKee a year ago. Saal struggled to offer direct answers during a 12 News at 4 interview Tuesday, saying, “We are trying our best.” His performance is being closely watched by Speaker Shekarchi, who has made housing his No. 1 priority and given the administration huge sums of money to tackle it over the last two years. “What I am looking for from any housing director — all housing directors — is production, production, production,” Shekarchi told the Globe this week. Asked if Saal was producing, the speaker replied: “Not yet.”
2. Speaking of housing, whatever happened to the Pay for Success program that lawmakers funded with $6 million back in June 2021? The money, championed by outgoing Rep. Liana Cassar, is supposed to fund a five-year pilot program that will “provide permanent supportive housing and additional wraparound services to 125 individuals experiencing homelessness.” Lawmakers have expressed hope that the program can simultaneously help at-risk individuals and save money. Yet 18 months later, it still isn’t up and running. Governor McKee’s administration reports they now hope Pay for Success will launch “in early 2023,” with the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness leading the effort.
3. Also slow to go out: $30 million in federal relief money for nursing homes.
4. David Cicilline’s challenge to Jim Clyburn may have ended unsuccessfully, but he still managed to secure a spot in House Democratic leadership once all the dominoes had fallen. New House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries — who worked closely with Cicilline when the two were co-chairs of the party’s policy and communications committee — has tapped the Rhode Islander to serve as parliamentarian of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. The 25-member panel plays a powerful role in the House despite operating under the radar, most notably by awarding committee assignments. “Congressman Cicilline is a trusted voice and thoughtful legislator with years of experience serving on the Steering and Policy Committee,” Jeffries said in a statement. “We are fortunate that Congressman Cicilline will continue to lend his experience, passion, insight and expertise to House Democratic Leadership,” he added.
5. Donald Trump may be losing support within the Republican Party, but he’s still top of mind for some members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation. On Wednesday, Sheldon Whitehouse joined Adam Schiff and two other Democrats in sending a letter to Facebook’s parent company urging the social media giant to keep its Trump ban in place even though the former president has been reinstated by Elon Musk’s Twitter. And on Thursday, David Cicilline formally introduced legislation he first floated last month that would bar Trump from holding office again under the 14th Amendment. “You don’t get to lead a government you tried to destroy,” he said. Cicilline’s bill has 40 cosponsors so far — though interestingly, no one else from Rhode Island or Massachusetts has signed on.
6. It looks like the president will be dispatching Joe Kennedy III to Northern Ireland.
7. Jack Reed kept the Senate Armed Services Committee’s streak alive this week, enacting a bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the 62nd year in a row. Democrats had to make multiple concessions to enact the massive $858 billion measure, from ending the Pentagon’s vaccination requirement to removing anti-radicalization language. But Reed was pleased with the outcome, arguing the bill will help the armed forces and bolster Rhode Island’s economy. “The United States of America is the leader of the free world and this bill ensures we have the capacity and capabilities to live up to that responsibility and keep the American people safe,” he said. Yet Reed faced dissenters even in his own backyard, with his fellow Senate Democrat Ed Markey joining Congressman Jake Auchincloss in voting against the bill. Markey argued the measure “doubles down on the failed approach of pouring money into a bloated, inefficient, and sometimes counterproductive national security machine underwritten by an army of lobbyists and gold-plated contractors.” Asked by my colleague Tolly Taylor for his response to the criticism, Reed said Friday, “They have the prerogative to vote any way they want.” Still, he bristled at the suggestion he’d shepherded a bad bill through Congress. “This is still a dangerous world, and I think not recognizing that is not the approach,” he said.
8. There was no lack of news in the city of Providence this week, and our Steph Machado was all over it. On Thursday, Steph aired an exit interview with Mayor Elorza that featured some of his most candid comments yet about the state-run city schools. “The reality is there are very, very few paths within the traditional public schools where your kid isn’t in a bad situation for at least one of their years,” he said. You can catch the entire interview on Pulse of Providence or Newsmakers this weekend. On the education beat, Steph filed a comprehensive story about the botched announcement of two school closures, and a scoop about officials scrapping the plan to convert the old St. Joe’s Hospital into a school. She was also on hand Thursday night at City Hall as the outgoing City Council held its final meeting; among the members retiring is John Igliozzi, who’s been on the council since Buddy Cianci was mayor. On top of all that, Steph had the scoop on Mayor-elect Brett Smiley’s senior staff picks, too. (Smiley was at the White House on Friday for a meeting of newly elected mayors where President Biden made a brief appearance.)
9. Lifespan’s chief financial officer quietly left the hospital group in October.
10. There was quite a bit of consternation earlier this year when the U.S. Census Bureau released a Post-Enumeration Survey that suggested Rhode Island overcounted its population by about 5% in 2020, meaning the state shouldn’t have actually kept two U.S. House seats in the last congressional reapportionment. One question that went unanswered at the time: exactly how many Rhode Islanders had the Census Bureau surveyed to reach its conclusion? Now we have the answer: a spokesperson tells me the bureau only surveyed about 1,000 people in Rhode Island to arrive at its conclusion. “It’s important to keep in mind that the PES is, by definition, an estimate and should be viewed as such,” said Common Cause Rhode Island’s John Marion. “It has a margin of error just like any survey. The PES does not survey group quarters (nursing homes, college dorms, prisons, etc.) and was subject to the same challenges presented by the pandemic as was the actual enumeration.”
11. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Tim White, tapping his expertise as a board member of the New England First Amendment Coalition: “A new public-records decision by AG Neronha’s office highlights the constant tug of war the public faces in accessing information they have a right to see, while also sending a clear message to government agencies: it pays to be opaque. Last year my colleague Eli Sherman asked Governor McKee’s office for background reports created by the Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association on the top three candidates to replace McKee as lieutenant governor. The governor’s office said no, claiming the dossiers weren’t government records but rather political documents and thus not subject to the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA). The main problem with that argument, as Eli wrote in his formal complaint to the AG, was that the material had been circulated among top members of McKee’s official staff. A 14-page ruling penned by Special Assistant AG Katherine Connolly Sadeck agreed with Eli: the documents were, in fact, government records. Sadeck found that ‘the Governor’s Office violated the APRA by withholding the assessments based on its assertion that the assessments are not subject to the APRA.’ But as it turns out, that did not mean the dossiers would be released. Sadeck determined the records could still be withheld because their release would ‘constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.’ It’s an odd determination considering the public has a significant interest in who serves them as state’s No. 2, and whether anything in their backgrounds should raise red flags. After all, it’s the voters that usually choose the lieutenant governor, after a thorough vetting on the campaign trail. As Sadeck noted in her decision, to overcome such privacy interests the person requesting the material ‘must show that the public interest sought to be advanced is a significant one.’ Respectfully, I would argue that standard was clearly met. Yet even more frustrating than the ruling was the travel of the case: the AG’s decision came down one year, three months and eight days after the complaint was filed. Keep in mind, Eli was originally looking to write a fairly straightforward article examining the pros and cons of the candidates to be the new LG. Even if he had succeeded in convincing the AG that the records should see the light of day, the point was moot by the time a decision was reached. I fear the ruling will only encourage government agencies to always say ‘no,’ because even if they lose, the issue will be so old by the time a decision is rendered that it will no longer matter. The system is broken. I can say with experience that journalists in Rhode Island are increasingly denied access to public records, and we are faring no better on appeal. In my view, two things need to happen: APRA needs a robust overhaul to tilt the pendulum back toward the public — à la Florida’s sunshine law — and citizens themselves need to let their government officials know they aren’t happy with the status quo.”
12. Eli Sherman and I put together a map showing last month’s voter turnout in all 39 Rhode Island cities and towns. Jamestown and Little Compton topped the list, with 62% of eligible voters casting a ballot, while participation in Central Falls fell to a historic low of just 18%.
13. Treasurer-elect James Diossa has announced his staff picks as he prepares to succeed Seth Magaziner next month. As previewed in this space on Nov. 12, Gonzalo Cuervo will be Diossa’s chief of staff. He also named Eileen Cheng as general counsel; Michelle Moreno-Silva as director of communications; Robert Craven Jr., who was his campaign manager, as director of legislative affairs; Lammis J. Vargas as senior advisor for policy; Charon L. Rose as senior advisor for financial empowerment and community outreach; and Lori Urso as director of executive operations. Staying in place will be Andrew Manca, chief operating officer; Eric Baggensen, chief investment officer; and Frank Karpinski, director of the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island.
14. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Eli Sherman: “Newport’s newly elected mayor, Xay Khamsyvoravong, says the City by the Sea continues to struggle with an acute housing crisis, which he cited as the City Council’s top priority for next year. Khamsyvoravong called the issue complex, but said he wants to stop widespread conversion of middle-class housing stock into short-term rentals for services like Airbnb. ‘They are an increasing problem, so we need to make sure we stem that,’ Khamsyvoravong said during a live interview on 12 News at 4. The mayor also said he’ll seek new ways to build more housing in the densely populated city, and he’s hopeful new residential units will be part of whatever redevelopment happens at the now-defunct Newport Grand casino, now owned by The Carpionato Group. Separately, Khamsyvoravong declined to provide a timeline for when the Cliff Walk might reopen after a section collapsed last March. But the mayor indicated Newport will be seeking help from the state to restore the highly popular walking path. ‘We’re going to need state help,’ he said.”
15. A familiar behind-the-scenes face at the State House will soon be on the ballot himself. Longtime R.I. Senate staffer Bob Bromley has thrown his hat into the ring for the upcoming special election to the New Bedford City Council following the resignation of Hugh Dunn in the wake of his legal troubles. Bromley has worked for the Senate since 1993 and is currently a senior legislative fiscal analyst in the Senate Fiscal Office, tracking the spending of the Department of Administration and the general officers, among other agencies. He is one of a half-dozen candidates seeking the seat. The preliminary election is Jan. 24, with the top two candidates moving on to the special election Feb. 28.
16. Speaking of the Whaling City, I had a great time visiting WBSM 1420 AM on Wednesday night for a guest appearance on “SouthCoast Tonight” with Marcus Ferro and Chris McCarthy. You can listen to the episode as a podcast here.
17. How about a little time traveling? YouTube takes us back to Rhode Island in the 1940s.
18. The Pew Research Center shares 15 of its striking findings from 2022.
19. This is the 544th edition of Nesi’s Notes, and — believe it or not — the final edition of 2022. The column will be taking a holiday break for the next two weeks, but will be back in your inboxes and Twitter feeds (assuming Twitter still exists) on Jan. 7. Happy Holidays to you and yours!
20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — an exit interview with Mayor Elorza. Watch Sunday at 5:30 a.m. on WPRI 12, or listen on the radio Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO. You can also subscribe to Newsmakers as a podcast on iTunes (or wherever you get your podcasts). See you back here next Saturday morning.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook