PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – R.I. House Speaker Joe Shekarchi this week unveiled a legislative package he argues would help bolster much-needed housing development across the state without circumventing local control over zoning and planning.
Shekarchi and other House Democrats held a news conference Thursday to roll out the 14 bills, saying the package as a whole would help advance the speaker’s top priority of trying to address Rhode Island’s worsening housing affordability crisis.
The top House Democrat — who has significant sway over legislative priorities and how the state spends money — was at pains to balance the need to increase statewide housing production with his unwillingness to big-foot local decision-makers out of the process.
“Nothing in this package forces communities to build more affordable housing and none of this legislation circumvents local decision-making authority,” Shekarchi, D-Warwick, told reporters during a briefing on the legislative package.
A full list of the legislative proposals can be found here, but broadly speaking, Shekarchi said the initiatives aim to streamline and simplify the process for developers to create more housing units at the local level.
Currently, more than a third of the state’s households — over 139,000 — “pay too much for housing,” with more than one in five renters spending over 50% of their income on housing costs, according to Roger Williams University’s HousingWorksRI.
“Housing is a critical issue,” said Shekarchi, who is currently considering a run for Congress. “I can’t do it alone… I need cities and towns to partner up.”
Shekarchi’s attempt to walk a line between sounding the alarm about the urgent need for more housing with the fears of local leaders about losing control reflects in part the fact he has already received pushback from some communities even before revealing his proposals.
Local leaders, especially in more rural areas, have expressed concerned the state is attempting to take a cookie-cutter approach to housing development that may not work the same in every community.
As a show of good faith, Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns executive director Ernie Almonte rose during Shekarchi’s press conference and said municipal leaders agreed “conceptually” with the ideas being unveiled.
But Almonte stopped short of fully endorsing the bills. And he specifically highlighted the need for infrastructural support — a top concern among many local leaders who argue their roads, schools and wastewater systems aren’t equipped for any large influx of new residents.
“While we have not had the opportunity to review the details of the bills presented today, our members encourage housing construction and rehabilitation, and removing barriers to housing, such as a lack of infrastructure,” Almonte said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing to work with the Speaker and members of the General Assembly to address additional details.”
The suite of legislative proposals includes several changes to how the development approval process currently works. The proposals include accelerating hearing procedures, standardizing permitting across all cities and towns, allowing owners of old mill buildings and hospitals to create housing by right and bypassing a middle-step in the appeal process.
Instead, disputes would go straight to R.I. Superior Court where Shekarchi wants to create a specific calendar dedicated to housing issues, although he admitted judicial leaders aren’t warm to the idea.
In a potential win for renters, Rep. Cherie Cruz, a Pawtucket Democrat, is seeking to eliminate fees for rental applications – an issue Shekarchi noted was highlighted by The Boston Globe in a story about the challenges for some families to find a place to live. The newspaper reported one family spending more than $5,000 in rental application fees over a nearly one-year period.
Among those on hand for Shekarchi’s news conference was House GOP Leader Mike Chippendale, who represents Foster, one of the rural communities concerned about potential state housing mandates. But Chippendale told 12 News he is encouraging fellow conservatives to view the speaker’s ideas as focused on eliminating red tape, traditionally a Republican issue.
One initiative that’s received public attention, but was absent from the speaker’s suite of initiatives, was an idea to allow the state to create more government-run housing. In January, the Providence Journal reported state leaders were looking to Maryland for a possible model to follow.
Construction of public housing in America boomed following the Housing Act of 1937. But it lost momentum and has largely become obsolete after President Richard Nixon put a moratorium on all public housing programs in 1974.
When asked about the idea in Rhode Island, Shekarchi expressed interest in the idea. But he stopped short of throwing his support behind it, saying it needed to be examined more closely and “needs to be done right.”
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 Threads, Twitter and Facebook.