PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Get ready for a fight between state and local leaders over how to address Rhode Island’s housing crisis.
House Democrats, who are leading the General Assembly’s effort to address the housing crisis, have yet to unveil any new housing-related legislation this year. Yet towns are already lining up in opposition to any potential proposals that would override local zoning tied to development.
The municipal argument: uniform statewide laws designed to spur new housing units won’t work because Rhode Island communities from Woonsocket to Westerly are too different in size, infrastructure, natural resources and population.
“The problem you have in the General Assembly up there – the majority of the legislators are from urban areas and they have no clue what’s going on in rural areas,” Exeter Town Council President Daniel Patterson told Target 12. “Welcome to Rhode Island.”
The opposition so far is coming mostly from rural towns including Exeter – population 6,500 – where local leaders are worried Democratic House Speaker Joe Shekarchi’s aggressive push to expand the housing supply could result in communities losing control over growth.
In a letter earlier this month to Shekarchi and other state leaders, Exeter’s Town Council and Planning Board laid out their concerns about proposals being examined by the House Land Use Commission, saying they could harm the town’s water sources and hamper local efforts to preserve farms, forests and the “rural character and quality of life” in Exeter.
The state commission’s ideas – outlined in a working document – include eliminating public hearings for developments that conform to local zoning, creating a growth quota for residential development in all communities, and reforming statewide minimum lot sizes for municipalities.
“All of that, frankly, was very alarming,” Exeter Planning Board Chair Scott Millar told Target 12.
‘Smacks of NIMBY-ism’
Exeter is hardly alone in its opposition.
The Valley Breeze on Jan. 19 reported Foster leaders are seeking to join a proposed coalition of eight rural communities that would lobby against any statewide overrides to local zoning tied to low- and moderate-income housing. The new group would be independent of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, which represents all 39 cities and towns at the State House.
The coalition would include Foster, Scituate, Glocester, Richmond, Hopkinton, Exeter and West Greenwich, and would be tasked with fighting an “oppressive state legislature.”
“We should dictate our own destiny and say we’ve got a better idea to meet the housing mandate,” Senate Minority Whip Gordon Rogers, a Foster Republican, told the newspaper.
The Foster Town Council has since passed a resolution urging rejection of any changes to the 1991 Rhode Island Zoning Enabling Act, saying in part, “The Town Council believes that the housing and development issues identified by the Land Use Commission can be best addressed and resolved by individual municipalities.”
Shekarchi expressed disappointment about the brewing opposition “to potential housing reform legislation that hasn’t even been drafted yet.” He noted that the House is still waiting on formal recommendations from two active commissions – the Land Use Commission as well as the Low- and Moderate-Income Housing Commission – and argued they have “statewide representation and expertise in housing production issues.”
“This blind prejudgment smacks of NIMBY-ism and discrimination,” Shekarchi told Target 12.
(NIMBY is short for “not in my backyard,” a term used to describe communities and individuals who oppose new development in their neighborhoods.)
“I welcome testimony after the bills have been drafted and introduced,” Shekarchi added.
The speaker, the most powerful lawmaker on Smith Hill, has repeatedly cited addressing the housing crisis as his top priority this legislative session. Single-family home prices and apartment asking rents have soared in recent years amid little growth in the housing supply, a problem seen in Massachusetts and a number of other states.
Only seven of Rhode Island's 39 communities have met the state-established goal of having at least 10% of their housing stock qualified as affordable. East Providence joined the list last fall.
Providence Business News reported earlier this month that Rhode Island in 2021 saw the fewest new houses built per capita in the country. And people who testified before the state commissions last year often cited restrictive local zoning regulations as a top barrier to new development of affordable housing.
“Over and over again, commissioners or people who presented to us would note the difficulties that local zoning provided in some instances,” said state Rep. June Speakman, a Warren Democrat, who chairs the Low- and Moderate-Income Commission. “We heard a lot about local zoning and local opposition -- and those are two different things, but both obstacles to affordable housing.”
Speakman is one of several House members seeking to change laws around housing. She said that would include introducing a bill with Sen. Meghan Kallman, a Pawtucket Democrat, dubbed the Create Homes Act that would allow the state to become a public developer and potential landlord of mixed-income housing.
"I’m not interested in ramming anything down municipalities' throats – that’s not going to work," she said. "But we need to find a way to get more housing built."
'They need to reevaluate what the state has done'
Regardless what shakes out of the legislative session, Shekarchi has made clear that he’s going to be aggressive with communities that don’t incentivize more housing development. He even went so far as to suggest he would consider redirecting state aid from cities and towns that don’t join the effort.
“If they don’t want to do housing in their community, maybe we can adjust their aid to reallocate it into other communities that do,” Shekarchi said earlier this month on WPRI 12's Newsmakers.
“Every city and town has to step up,” he added. “We need to look at this thing differently.”
In Exeter, Millar pushes back on the idea that municipalities aren’t doing enough. He acknowledged that his town was facing an affordability crisis. But he said officials had attempted to participate in past efforts to incentivize building, including siting a development plot where the town decided low- and moderate-income housing could be built responsibly.
The site – known as the Exeter Vision – was created near Route 2 about a decade ago, yet not one developer has proposed building anything there, according to Millar, raising questions about whether it worked as well for developers as it did for the town.
"It's hard to say," Millar said when asked why nobody had sought to build there. "The growth rate in Exeter hasn't been substantial since the recession and I'm sure there are a number of market conditions for that."
Millar nonetheless argued they followed the state's guidance by creating that site a decade ago -- an effort that took four years.
He also suggested the town would be open to more flexible solutions rather than statewide mandates, including using state funds to purchase land the town identifies as important to protect that they would then develop affordable housing units that would have to be below market rate in perpetuity.
“That’s an approach that works better in Exeter,” he said.
He also pointed a finger back at the state, noting the government owns 300 acres of land in Exeter where the now-defunct Ladd School was located that he argued could be developed into affordable housing.
Unlike other parts of the town where on-site wells provide water to homes, the Ladd School has a public water supply. But he said the state has never proposed housing there.
“People are pointing fingers at municipalities,” he said. “Before they do that, they need to reevaluate what the state has done over the last 20 years to address the affordable housing crisis.”
Eli Sherman (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.