‘Housing is not affordable’: Shekarchi unveils legislative package on housing

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — With $200 million to help renters, $65 million to build more housing and a new targeted suite of legislation, R.I. House leaders are hopeful 2021 could be a big year for affordable housing in Rhode Island.

House Speaker Joe Shekarchi on Monday unveiled a package of new and familiar legislation that he said could go a long way toward addressing the state’s affordable housing challenges.

The issue of affordability has been exacerbated by the pandemic, he said, pointing to a recent HousingWorksRI study that shows families making $34,000 per year cannot afford the fair market price of a two-bedroom apartment in any city or town of Rhode Island.

“Unfortunately, for many of our fellow Rhode Islanders, they make far less than that,” Shekarchi said during a State House news conference. “Our housing is not affordable.”

Before discussing the housing bills that have his support this legislative session, Shekarchi started off by highlighting that the state has already received a significant boost from Congress. Federal lawmakers in December allocated $200 million in COVID-19 relief funds to assist Rhode Island renters in need.

The Warwick Democrat initially said the federal aid could also be used to help homeowners who needed help making mortgage payments. But his aides later clarified that the $200 million is only for renters. (Additional federal aid designed to help homeowners in need is currently making its way through Congress as part of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief plan.)

Rhode Island Housing, a quasi-public agency, is in the process of setting up a website to administer the $200 million program, which is far more than the roughly $16 million that was allocated for rental assistance during 2020. Shekarchi said the money will help people get the help they need to stay in their homes throughout the public health crisis that started in Rhode Island last March.

“No tenant should be evicted for nonpayment of rent,” Shekarchi said.

In additional to the federal aid, Shekarchi also pointed to other efforts in motion that could boost spending tied to affordable housing.

He strongly encouraged voters to support Question No. 3 at the ballot box Tuesday. If approved, the measure would authorize the state to float $65 million in bonds to “increase the availability of affordable housing and support community revitalization through the redevelopment of existing structures, new construction and property acquisition,” according to the legislation.

The state has periodically addressed its affordable housing shortage using bond measures, which have proven effective in getting projects off the ground in the past. But housing advocates have long criticized the approach as a Band-Aid on an entrenched problem, suggesting affordable housing development needs sustained funding.

Last year, before the pandemic hit locally, Gov. Gina Raimondo proposed creating a two-tiered tax system that would double the state’s conveyance tax to 0.92% on all property sales — both residential and commercial — totaling more than $500,000. The current rate of 0.46% would be applied to the first $500,000 of any transaction, and all proceeds from both taxes would go toward funding affordable housing projects.

State officials at the time estimated the new tax would generate about $3.6 million in state revenue for the next fiscal year, which would more than double in the years to follow. Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor noted last winter that Rhode Island was the only state “without such a dedicated funding stream.”

But then the coronavirus crisis hit in March and lawmakers punted all budget-making decisions for months. In December, the General Assembly passed a so-called “skinny budget,” which did not include the new tax. Raimondo signed that budget into law.

Asked Monday if he would support the conveyance tax in the next state budget for fiscal year 2021-22, Shekarchi said he’s “open to the idea,” but wants to wait and see what type of revenue is available before making any commitments. Separately, he also said there wasn’t any specific funding stream he planned to earmark for affordable housing projects, saying the $200 million in federal aid and $65 million in potential bond money is a substantial step forward.

Among the seven housing-focused bills highlighted Monday, the only one with any financial implications is a Shekarchi-sponsored proposal that would create a deputy secretary of commerce and housing within the R.I. Executive Office of Commerce. The speaker said people should think of this person as a “housing czar” who would oversee all housing initiatives in Rhode Island.

“I do not have a candidate for that,” he added, saying it would be up to incoming Gov. Dan McKee to hire someone for the position. McKee, who is expected to become governor as soon as Tuesday, is slated to submit his first state tax-and-spending plan to the General Assembly by March 11.

The proposal in the new package that has the most buzz among housing advocates is sponsored by Rep. Anastasia Williams, D-Providence. The bill would prohibit housing discrimination against people who receive government assistance, such as Section 8 housing vouchers, to pay for rent.

Williams has unsuccessfully pushed for similar legislation in the past, but this year she appears to have the support necessary to get it out of the House and over to the state Senate. The legislation is scheduled for a House floor vote Tuesday and Shekarchi said he expects the Democratic-controlled chamber to “overwhelmingly pass it.”

Shekarchi lauded Williams for not giving up on the legislation despite past failures, pointing to a 2019 study by Southcoast Fair Housing that found Housing Choice Voucher recipients could afford more than one-third of listed apartments in Rhode Island but were rejected 93% of the time. Currently, 9,300 Rhode Island households rely on the vouchers to afford housing, according to House estimates.

“I’m proud of what we’re going to accomplish tomorrow,” Shekarchi said, adding that it will be “one of the major pieces of legislation” his chamber has passed this year.

One potentially controversial piece of housing legislation is sponsored by House Deputy Majority Whip Mia Ackerman, D-Cumberland, and would require cities and towns to allow so-called “tiny homes” to be used as accessory dwelling units — which could then be counted as affordable housing.

Shekarchi argued that the legislation could spur greater development of affordable housing in communities across the state, saying some people prefer to live in smaller homes but are blocked by rigid zoning requirements.

Nonetheless, the legislative definition of a “tiny house” — which is popularly depicted on social media as a trailer-sized structure outfitted with small amenities and appliances — is relatively broad. The bill describes a tiny house as something that “may include single-room structures, and which is built on a permanent foundation.”

Shekarchi underscored that the legislation still needs to go through the committee process and said there would be ample opportunities to “fine-tune” the language, if needed.

Other housing legislation highlighted included:

  • A Shekarchi-sponsored bill to create a legislative commission to “study all aspects of land use, preservation, development, production, regulation, zoning, housing and the environment”
  • A bill sponsored by Rep. June Speakman, D-Warren, which would create a special legislative commission to study the state’s Low and Moderate Income Housing Act
  • A bill sponsored by Rep. John Edwards, D-Tiverton, that would approve a three-year extension for a tax exemption granted to properties currently under development (current set to expire Dec. 31)
  • A bill sponsored by House Deputy Speaker Charlene Lima, D-Cranston, that would reduce the number of local planning board members needed to create a quorum down to a simple majority

The event was attended virtually by housing advocates from across the state, including United Way of Rhode Island President and CEO Cortney Nicolato, who lauded the legislative effort and said the state is in crisis when it comes to housing.

“Housing is a fundamental right for all humans and that’s not a reality today,” Nicolato said. “We know we have to do better.”

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

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