PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Under mounting pressure following multiple missteps in recent months, Josh Saal is stepping down after only a year as Rhode Island’s first-ever housing secretary.

Gov. Dan McKee’s office announced Wednesday that it had accepted Saal’s letter of resignation. McKee appointed Saal to the $190,000-per-year cabinet-level position in December 2021, as required by a new law that House Speaker Joe Shekarchi had championed.

“Housing is one of the most critical issues facing Rhode Island today and over the next decade,” McKee spokesperson Matt Sheaff said in a statement. “That’s why our administration proposed a historic quarter-billion-dollar investment in creating and supporting more housing at all income levels. This issue is crucial to the families struggling today and to the long-term economic success of our state.”

In his resignation letter, Saal said he was proud of his team for “laying the foundation for Rhode Island’s first Department of Housing.” While he argued there had been some “targeted successes,” he lamented that the state’s housing system is “hindered by its decentralized structure.”

“Housing and homelessness programs are currently being administered and led by several different state agencies as well as multiple non-governmental and quasi-governmental bodies,” Saal wrote. “This approach has led to limitations on oversight, and to the unintentional creation of inefficient ‘silos’ — an ineffective practice that the creation of this new centralized agency aims to address.”

Often dubbed the state’s “housing czar,” Saal had come under increasing fire in recent months, as both advocates and lawmakers focused on his handling of the intertwined issues of housing and homelessness.

Last month, the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness slammed Saal for requesting real-time data on people living outside, along with the locations of 80 encampments across the state. He made the request after McKee questioned the accuracy of the organization’s data. 

The group pushed back, standing by their data-collection efforts, and expressed concern that sharing the precise locations of encampments could lead to disbandment. The back-and-forth came after the McKee administration last month evicted a group of homeless people who had been camping out in front of the State House, while simultaneously opening a warming center at the Cranston Street Armory.

Woonsocket officials cleared out another encampment there last week, and The Providence Journal reported another encampment was cleared out in Warwick. 

“Many have expressed concern that sharing or tracking encampment location information … will result in unintended harm to the persons residing outdoors,” Caitlin Frumerie, the coalition’s executive director, wrote in the letter last month.

Saal came under additional scrutiny earlier this month when he missed a deadline to submit a required report that is supposed to provide comprehensive data on the state’s housing situation. The lapse was first reported by The Boston Globe.

His resignation comes one day after the R.I. Senate Finance Committee scheduled a meeting for Thursday to scrutinize the McKee administration’s spending in key areas, including housing. The committee had called on Saal to attend.

Shekarchi — who has named housing his top legislative priority as speaker — has been increasingly critical of the administration’s efforts so far. During a taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers on Friday, he expressed concern that “very little” of the $250 million in federal relief funds appropriated for housing has been spent to date.

State documents show the state has spent about 6.6% of what’s been allocated so far, although housing officials say the number would be closer to 25% if the calculation includes money they say has been committed but not yet spent.

“I don’t think we’re there, clearly, on housing,” Shekarchi said on Newsmakers.  

“I’m disappointed,” he added. “I want to hear from the secretary and find out why.”

Saal belatedly released the housing report last week, but it contained a compilation of data already publicly available through other organizations including the nonprofit HousingWorksRI, the Census Bureau and the National Low Income Housing Coalition. 

“A review of the data presented in this report shows that Rhode Island is experiencing a housing shortage similar to national trends as evidenced by high-cost burden rates and low vacancy rates,” Saal wrote.

While citing the significant state money being poured into housing, he said Rhode Island “must increase production of new housing for both renters and homeowners, especially with a focus on the expanding needs of the state’s senior population.” 

Saal made no recommendations in the report despite being directed to do so by the General Assembly, saying those would be included in a future report dubbed the Statewide Housing Plan. In late December he announced he would seek to hire consultants to help him put together the plan.

After Saal’s resignation Wednesday, Shekarchi released a statement saying he was “disappointed by the lack of progress that was made under Secretary Saal’s leadership and the inadequate report he recently submitted to the legislature.”

“We need immediate production and I look forward to working with Governor McKee and a new secretary,” Shekarchi said. “I hope the new secretary will be a person of action with a record of getting things done in Rhode Island.”

The sentiment was echoed by Republican House Minority Leader Michael Chippendale, who called Saal’s resignation “not a surprise” and “appropriate.”

“It has definitely driven home the need to have an experienced professional in the housing secretary role – someone who understands the unique needs and landscape of Rhode Island,” Chippendale said in a statement. “Rhode Island’s critical affordable housing shortage is worthy of a leader who can make an immediate impact forging alliance with the various support organizations across the state and building consensus for a thoughtful plan of action.”

In his resignation letter, Saal argued that “one person alone was never going to be able to solve a housing crisis that has been developing for decades.”

“It requires that we all come to the table with the best intentions and work towards solving this together for the sake of creating a vibrant, forward-looking community for all Rhode Islanders,” he wrote, adding: “The work is difficult, complex, and often messy. However, I am confident that under his administration, Rhode island is up for the challenge.”

Sheaff said Saal has agreed to stay on for a short transition period and “our office will have more to say about the leadership plan for the department over the next few days.” There has been speculation at the State House that McKee could tap former Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor to replace Saal, though there has been no confirmation of that possibility.

“We thank Secretary Saal for his work over the past year and look forward to building a Department of Housing that is innovative and responsive to the gravity this moment requires,” Sheaff said.

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

Ted Nesi contributed to this report.