Imagine this: you’re a medical assistant and a single parent. You’ve worked hard to be self-sufficient, even taking the classes needed to obtain your certification. Yet you cannot afford to purchase a home anywhere in Rhode Island. And, you can afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment in just one community.
For too many Rhode Islanders, this situation is a reality.
Housing is considered “affordable” when it costs no more than 30 percent of an individual or family’s gross income. According to data from HousingWorks RI, the median wage for a medical assistant in Rhode Island is $17.62 an hour, which is approximately $36,000 annually. In order for an apartment to be affordable, this person should be paying no more than about $900 per month for housing, including utilities. Unfortunately, most apartments in Rhode Island cost much more than that.
When families pay more than they can afford for housing, other things must be cut from their budget. If they’re severely cost-burdened, a family is forced to make some difficult decisions, possibly even forgoing healthcare or food.
The pandemic has shined a spotlight on this crisis: if an extended family is crowded into a small apartment – often, because the alternative is homelessness – and one person is infected with COVID, other family members are exposed. COVID hot spots in Rhode Island correlate directly to areas where people live in close proximity to each other.
We can and must do better.
I’ve made it my top priority to improve Rhode Island’s housing development and production. My colleagues in the House and I have introduced a comprehensive package of legislation, aimed at reducing many barriers to affordable housing.
Here are the highlights of our legislative package:
The “source of income” legislation, already passed by the House, will prohibit housing discrimination against people who receive government assistance to pay their rent.
Establish a Deputy Secretary of Commerce and Housing. The goal is to have a centralized housing office to advocate for and oversee all housing initiatives, and work with key stakeholders to create an integrated state housing plan.
Create a legislative commission to study all aspects of land use and put together a plan that allows for sustainable and equitable economic growth in support of our affordable housing goals.
Create a special legislative commission to study the Rhode Island Low and Moderate Income Housing Act. A similar commission was created in 2016 and made numerous helpful recommendations.
Extend a tax exemption to encourage more affordable housing development. Scheduled to expire this year, the exemption is for properties under development until they are occupied. The bill, which incentivizes developers to build housing “on spec” to help alleviate our housing supply shortage, will extend the program through 2024.
Allow tiny homes, which make homeownership possible for some who might not otherwise be able to afford it, to be used as accessory dwelling units and count them as affordable housing in cities’ and towns’ affordable housing goals.
More easily enable local planning boards to establish a quorum for votes so that procedural delays do not hold up permits for the development we need.
Additionally, Sen. Jack Reed worked tirelessly to secure $200 million in rental assistance for Rhode Island, which was approved in the federal stimulus package in December.
The House legislative package, combined with the $65 million housing bond passed by voters earlier this month, is just the beginning of a significant push that our state must make to create more affordable housing. It is essential that we keep this momentum going.
House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi is a Democrat from Warwick.