Developing an approach to creating affordable housing

Posted 2/15/23


Rhode Island is getting a bit of a mulligan on efforts to confront its housing crisis, since Stefan Pryor started just last week as the state’s new housing director. Still, …

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Developing an approach to creating affordable housing



Rhode Island is getting a bit of a mulligan on efforts to confront its housing crisis, since Stefan Pryor started just last week as the state’s new housing director. Still, it’s more than reasonable to wonder about the outlook, considering that the state has failed to address the crunch for decades. The housing crisis has been worsening since 2003 and past efforts to make progress (including a push by former Gov. Don Carcieri) have come up empty. Josh Saal didn’t work out as the state’s housing czar, let alone someone who could streamline what some consider an overdeveloped bureaucracy of government agencies involved with the issue. There’s the impediment posed by the staunch opposition of some towns to statewide mandates on zoning. Despite all this, one of the state’s foremost practitioners in developing affordable housing, Jennifer Hawkins, president/executive director of One Neighborhood Builders, counts herself optimistic. “The leadership that we have at the State House is unprecedented,” Hawkins said last week on Political Roundtable, pointing to moves Gov. Dan McKee and legislative leaders, particularly House Speaker Joe Shekarchi, have made to prioritize housing, in part by including $250 million in related funding in the current state budget. For a reality check, Hawkins points out that of the sum, $177 million is geared for housing production, a vastly insufficient amount to generate the 35,000 new housing units called necessary in 2016. Still, Hawkins – whose firm has threaded the red tape needle while working in such communities as East Providence, Cumberland and Central Falls – remains hopeful. On the obstacle posed by municipal opposition to zoning changes, she said, “Let's start with the early adopters. Let's focus on the municipalities where they already have access to infrastructure, where there is already RIPTA bus lines. Let's start in those communities because there's plenty of those communities that can do, can contribute greater to the solution. Yes, the rural communities may find a requirement of a density bonus unpalatable but, you know, let's focus first on where there could be easier successes. And I think that there's plenty of communities where there's lots of land that is not wetlands, they have a bus stop within a quarter of a mile.”


Rhode Island has its share of intractable problems – under-performing public schools, a slow-motion pension crisis in Providence, and lawmakers’ unwillingness to confront exploitative lending, to name three. But the Providence Police Department offers a prime example of how an institution can change for the better. During late-stage Buddy II, the PPD had a lot of problems. But that now seems a long time ago, particularly after the lengthy and widely lauded tenure of former Col. Hugh Clements. Last week, Mayor Brett Smiley announced his selection of Clements’ successor: Oscar Perez, who immigrated to RI from Colombia and who began with the department in 1994. Perez offered some insight into his philosophy during his introductory news conference. Asked how many officers the department needs, he said it’s more important for Providence “to have the right officers with the right training with the right life experiences to police the city. We’re a majority-minority city and we have to make sure that every officer that we hire has the qualities to police the city in a proper, constitutional manner.”


The selection of Perez got a rave from Attorney General Peter Neronha, who said via Twitter that he’s worked with Perez for longer than he can remember and that he’ll make a fine chief. The Black Lives Matter RI PAC congratulated Perez while also citing ongoing concerns: “Although progress has been made, many pressing issues still need to be addressed in our community around public safety, ranging from accountability, transparency, and the work to dismantling systemic flaws in policing itself. Chief Perez should be prudent in enforcing the Community Safety Act (CSA), which is already standing law, and begin a strong relationship with the Providence External Review Authority (PERA). We hope that during his time as police chief, more emphasis is put on expanding mobile crisis intention teams to reach the growing needs of our citizens with mental and behavioral health issues. We look forward to working with Chief Perez and the department to achieve a safer, more effective, and more equitable police department for Providence.”


The odd bedfellows concept could be seen in play in the RI House of Representatives last week as Rep. David Morales, a Democratic socialist from Providence, introduced with House GOP Leader Mike Chippendale of Foster a bill aimed at lowering prescription drug costs. The two men could also be seen huddling near Chippendale’s desk during Tuesday’s session. Morales has impressed his colleagues with his intellect and his approach, although the Providence chapter of DSA withdrew its previous endorsement for him, since Morales backed the re-election of House Speaker Joe Shekarchi. Chippendale told me later he welcomes the opportunity to seek common ground with such leftist lawmakers as Morales and Rep. Enrique Sanchez (D-Providence), even if his beliefs and theirs are dramatically different. Chippendale said there’s considerable overlap between them on attempts to improve economic conditions for their constituents. Added Morales, “While we may disagree on traditional partisan issues, such as a woman’s right to choose, we still take the time to understand each other’s policy positions and find common overlap where it exists. So unlike the partisanship divide at the federal level, I hope that our local bipartisan efforts can demonstrate the importance of governing based on policy merits, not political labels.”


Amid the quiet phase of the 2024 election season, one of the more interesting possibilities is a potential run for mayor of Cranston next year by state Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, a Republican. She declined to comment (and Mayor Ken Hopkins has not publicly indicated his plans for next year). Fenton-Fung is well liked by her legislative colleagues, and her approach has included twice backing Shekarchi for speaker. If she were to run for the seat formerly held by her husband, Allan Fung, it could be a better launching pad for a higher office. On the Democrat side, City Council President Jessica Marino, the first woman to hold that post, is seen as a likely candidate, and she can use the bully pulpit of her office to boost her profile.


There’s always a Rhode Island connection, right? How to resist a story about six Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission officials who were implicated in a plan to divert fine bourbon, including the storied Pappy Van Winkle, for themselves instead of the public. Turns out the reporter who broke the story is Noelle Crombie, daughter of the esteemed former ProJo scribe Dave Crombie, and a former server at the Hot Club.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. You can
follow him on Twitter @IanDon.

Donnis, politics


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