In order to comfortably pay for a two-bedroom apartment in Rhode Island, one needs to make at least $46,000 a year, said Ian Lang, board chairman of HousingWorks RI at the release of the 2012 Housing Fact Book on Friday. The $46,000 a year would allow the renter to pay just 30 percent of their income toward housing, since the average cost of a two-bedroom apartment in the state is $1,150, a 48-percent increase from 2001, when rent was $775.
But the median income in the state is roughly $36,000, about $10,000 less than what’s needed to make rent affordable. So what does that mean for the average Rhode Islander? The large financial gap between income and housing costs leaves many with the difficult decision: pay rent or pay for other basic needs?
In Warwick, the average two-bedroom rent has shot up 60 percent since 2001, growing from $757 to $1,208 in 2011. According to the Fact Book, Warwick residents who earn an average wage of $41,132 would need $48,320 to “afford” their rent, a smaller but still marked gap.
Nellie Gorbea, executive director for HousingWorks RI, a coalition that works to provide affordable housing to Rhode Islanders, said the state is still feeling the effects of the burst of the housing bubble. The high cost of homes that quickly became unaffordable for homeowners resulted in today’s high foreclosure rate.
In 2011, Warwick had 249 foreclosures, the second highest in the state, just behind Providence. Since the start of 2012, Warwick has seen 99 single-family home foreclosures, the highest in the state.
On Friday, a panel of housing experts addressed those gathered in the Rotunda of the Convention Center to discuss trends in the 2012 Fact Book. The panel included George McCarthy, the director of metropolitan opportunity for the Ford Foundation; Len Albright, assistant professor of sociology and public policy at the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University; and Margaux Morisseau, director of community building at NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley.
“We haven’t given housing as much attention as it deserves,” said McCarthy, who said, since the age of the Neanderthal, humans have understood the fundamental importance of shelter.
McCarthy said affordable housing plays a major role is growing the middle class, a move he says growing countries are focusing on.
“We’ve been hollowing out the middle class for the past two or three decades,” he said.
For McCarthy, who grew up in housing projects in Hyde Park outside of Boston, making affordable housing available to those who need it while removing the stigma that surrounds it for those who don’t, is a crucial combination.
McCarthy recalls how affordable housing projects used to look shabby because they didn’t want people living in them to feel as if they had been rewarded for their lack of means. The result, however, was that neighbors didn’t want affordable housing built in their neighborhoods.
Now, there’s a happy medium – make the housing desirable to the surrounding community, but make it clear it’s a temporary solution to those who reside there.
McCarthy said housing was like infrastructure.
“Can you imagine a modern economy without roads, electricity or sewers?” he asked. Public housing, he said, is a public good.
“Public goods made it possible for me to succeed,” he said.
At NeighborWorks, Morisseau sees the benefits of having a roof over your head, and said that over the past six years, 47 children enrolled in a free program called Sure Track to College have gone on to higher education studies.
Morisseau said it’s imperative that the state has a dedicated stream of funding to public housing.
“Having a [housing] bond every couple of years is a scary place to be,” she said. “I can’t stress the need to have a dedicated [funding] source in our state.”
Albright, who studied the effects of a public housing complex on its surrounding neighborhood in New Jersey, said the stereotypes about affordable housing developments aren’t true. His study showed no increase in crime, and positive impacts on residents’ health, education and occupation status.
“Housing is a very smart investment,” he said.
One of the major goals of Friday’s event was to drive home the importance of Bond Referendum 7, which would allocate $25 million to the Rhode Island Housing Resources Commission to create affordable homes. According to literature handed out at Friday’s event, the $25 million would create 600 affordable homes, and is expected to leverage $6 for every $1 spent on the construction.
According to the Fact Book, there are currently 445,902 year-round housing units in the state. An additional 13,000 long-term homes are needed to ensure 10 percent of every city or town’s housing stock is affordable, a number mandated by state law. Currently, only six of Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns meet the state’s standard; Warwick has just over 5 percent.