Speaker’s promise:

Housing incentives, & keeping local control

Posted 3/9/23

When House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi announced a 14-bill package of housing legislation Thursday he knew better than most in the crowded House Lounge where he was going to get the biggest pushback …

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Speaker’s promise:

Housing incentives, & keeping local control


When House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi announced a 14-bill package of housing legislation Thursday he knew better than most in the crowded House Lounge where he was going to get the biggest pushback to his goal of providing more housing through standardized regulations and opening new opportunities for housing developments.

And the pushback would come from city and town officials who are on the frontline of neighborhood issues and are answerable to constituents.

As an attorney representing developers seeking zone changes and variances, Shekarchi has faced his share of angry audiences who fear the traffic, noise and disruption of added development, or for that matter, any development.

In representing his clients, Shekarchi introduces a proposed development at neighborhood informational meetings. These are not sessions where boards and commissions take votes and there’s a legal recorded transcript. Rather, it’s an opportunity for the developer to share the plan, for residents to get a picture of the full project and for the developer to learn of and address concerns before there’s a formal hearing.

The unveiling of the housing package Thursday had similar overtones only in place of the residents were lawmakers answerable to the residents.

More than once, Shekarchi emphasized the legislative package wouldn’t strip municipalities of their authority.

“Nothing in this package forces communities to build more affordable housing, and none of the legislation circumvents local decision-making,” he said in introducing the package. “My goal is that, by making the development process simpler, faster, and more predictable, we’re not only expediting work already in the pipeline, but also incentivizing more private developers to invest in Rhode Island.”

The press release accompanying the announcement is laced with assurances that the measures won’t erode municipal oversight of development. Referring to legislation sponsored by Rep. June S. Speakman, chair of the Special Legislative Commission to Study the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act, to amend Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) legislation, the release reads, “It does not take away municipal control of permitting, but only allows two categories by right.” The legislation would extend the ability of home owners to convert their homes to two-family homes, but prohibit their use for short-term/transient use.

“I am very excited to extend the life of the Commission to Study the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act,” Speakman said in the release. “Since its inception, substantive legislation has been developed as a result of the testimony and discussions that arose during commission meetings. However, we still have more work to do. With a new state Department of Housing – and the resulting broader capacity to collect and analyze housing data – we can continue to streamline development processes, broaden what can be built and where, and support municipalities in achieving their housing goals.”

Almost a year ago to the date, then Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena had something to say about legislation calling for a ban on single-family residential zoning in communities with more than 20,000 residents.

“This is insanity,” Polisena said at the time. “What they’re doing is usurping the powers of planning and zoning. This is communism at its best.”

The legislation introduced by Rep. Brianna Henries, Rep. Karen Alzate and Rep. David Morales never made it out of committee. The legislators had argued it would expand the supply of affordable housing in urban areas.

Also in the package is legislation requiring municipal land-use approvals to be consistent with future land use maps “so long as the municipality’s comprehensive plan is updated in accordance with the statute.” It goes on to say that comprehensive plans must be updated at least every 10 years and that communities failing to update those plans within 12 years cannot use that as the basis for local board denials of projects. The provision is likely to raise issues with rural communities that don’t have full time planning staffs to update comprehensive plans, while being faced with demands for housing developments fueled by the hot housing market that subsequently pressure the need for schools and the infrastructure from roads to sewers and water.

Shekarchi has reached across the political aisle to House Minority Leader Michael W. Chippendale (R-Dist. 40, Foster, Glocester, Coventry) seemingly to address the apprehensions of rural communities. Chippendale was at Shekarchi’s side at Thursday’s announcement. 

“In this legislation there are opportunities to eliminate bureaucracy in the front-end permitting process – and cutting red tape is always good for productivity. Now, we need to compliment these efforts by listening to the various challenges each of our municipalities face, and responding to those needs with equal dedication, support and resources,” Chippendale said in a statement.

In outlining the package of bills, Shekarchi highlighted the measure sponsored by Special Legislation Committee Chairwoman Karen Alzate of Pawtucket and Central Falls that would establish zoning incentives including parking requirements and minimum lot size per dwelling unit for the adaptive reuse of schools, factories, religious facilities, hospitals, offices and malls as housing. Shekarchi observed these facilities are generally in urban areas close to transportation and markets and have existing water and sewer capacity to support housing developments.

Other legislation aimed at increasing the availability of housing through streamlining permitting, zoning and universal provisions as outlined in the release is as follows:

  1. Low/Mod Income Housing Act (Effective Jan. 1, 2024)

Sponsor: Speaker Shekarchi

The legislation does not alter the 10% mandate or take review of the projects away from the municipalities. 


  • Streamlines process-- now two(preliminary and final) steps not including pre-application
  • make clearer standards for review of applications
  • Provide for required and discretionary municipal subsidies and zoning incentives, and clear definition and method of calculating density bonus

NOTE: Standardizes and streamlines the process. It’s the same process but shorter – two steps instead of three. Same requirements and still subject to local approval. (Eliminates master plan process)

  1. Subdivision and land development permits and processes (Jan 1, 2024)

Sponsor: Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Craven

  • The legislation does not change the process or permitting by municipalities
  • Standardizes project review categories statewide
  • Legislation will narrow the categories of types of development into 3 defined types with standardized definitions of what process applies to what type of development statewide
  • Appeal of planning decisions to zoning board as board of appeals removed; direct appeal to superior court.

NOTE: This doesn’t touch any of the processes. There are defined categories. Unifying the process across municipalities, but local communities have control.

  1. Accessory Dwelling Units (‘ADUs’)

Sponsor: Chairwoman June Speakman

Allow only certain categories of ADUs by right:

  • within existing footprint and
  • lots over 20K sf of total lot area by right ADUs limited to 900 sf.

For ADUs not permitted by right, retains limitations on municipal restrictions from last year and adds other limitations but allows for municipal review and permitting

  • ADUs cannot be used for short term/transient use/AirBnB
  • This is a priority of AARP – this came out of their recommendations
  1. Comprehensive planning

Sponsor: Municipal Government and Housing Committee Chairman Stephen Casey

  • Comprehensive plans not updated within 12 years (10 years is the requirement) will not be able to be utilized as the basis for local board denials
  • Requires yearly strategic plan and report for implementation goals approved by Town/City Council (accountability and progress to be measured yearly)

NOTE: There is grant money available for assistance with this. Provides transparency and accountability on where municipalities are on updating their plans.

  1. Transit-oriented development Pilot Program

Sponsor: Rep. Leonela Felix

  • Creates pilot program which allows property near transit hubs to apply through Secretary of Housing after establishment of local zoning ordinance which encourage high density residential development with affordable housing
  • other application criteria, selection process and review process to be established by Secretary of Housing.

NOTE: This is totally optional. This will enable the Secretary to create a program for municipality to have financial incentives for density around transit hub.

  1. Adaptive re-use/ re-development

Sponsor: Special Legislation Committee Chairwoman Karen Alzate

  • Allows, as a permitted use, adaptive reuse of commercial structures such as mills, hospitals, offices, malls, religious facilities, schools into high density residential developments
  • Zoning incentives for development include parking not required to be over one space per unit and min lot size per dwelling unit not to determine density. Density is at a minimum 15 units per acre where the project provides for a portion of LMI units and where development is within existing footprint
  • Projects to be reviewed under Development Plan Review

NOTE: This would allow mills, factories, hospitals, malls, churches and schools to be redeveloped for housing without the need to go before the planning board for a zone change. It incentivizes a developer to look at taking a factory and converting to housing. Many of these buildings have ample water, electricity – should be able easily convert (infrastructure already there)

  1. State Housing Appeals Board (SHAB) in Low/Mod Act

Sponsor: Rep. Jose Batista

  • The legislation does not alter the current standards for review on appeal
  • Repeals SHAB to provide for one appeal process direct to Superior Court (currently applicants go to SHAB but abutters go to Superior Court).
  • Limit appeals to applicant and aggrieved parties—same as zoning and planning approvals
  • SHAB phases out Jan 1, 2024

NOTE: This bill does not keep the SHAB after January 1, 2024 – matter must be transferred to Superior Court at their current stage (same review standard anyway)

  1. Create Housing/Land Use Court Calendar—Jan 1, 2024

Sponsor: Speaker Shekarchi

  • The legislation does not provide for additional appeals of matters that did not previously exist, or otherwise alter any process or standards of review on appeal
  • All land use appeals eligible
  • Follows purpose of expedited appeals/priority on the calendar for land use appeals which is already a statutory mandate

NOTE: This bill does not authorize magistrate to make actual decisions – because that would trigger a three-step appeal process

  1. Inclusionary zoning –Jan 1, 2024

Sponsor: Finance Committee Chairman Marvin L. Abney

  • Base density bonus of at least 30%--- to be calculated by total lot area, same as amendments for LMI Act (currently NO base density bonus, but 10% of project has to be LMI)
  • Time limitation on spending fees or turnover to state for use in developing affordable housing in that respective community

NOTE: Creates a base level density bonus and defines how you calculate the density bonus. City/town still makes the decision to approve/deny. If the muni doesn’t spend the Fee in Lieu, it goes to RI Housing and they can determine how to spend it in that community. This is an incentive for municipalities to take this money they have collected and spend it on affordable housing.

  1. Zoning Standards—Jan 1, 2024

Sponsor: Chairman Craven

  • Amends dimensional variance definition---conflict in statute now
  • takes out “for financial gain” standard which is currently misapplied and take out ‘least relief necessary” which conflicts with main dimensional variance standard of ‘more than a mere inconvenience – open to feedback on better standards
  • special use permit—specifically codifies the requirement that municipalities provide in ordinance specific and objective criteria for each type of special use, subject to zoning approval (currently a mix of caselaw and statutory authority, will now codify that)
  • Revises modification process to clarify and require municipal use of the tool for minor deviations of zoning relief and quicker approval/denial of the same, retain abutter notification system. If denied, go to zoning board for variance
  • Substandard lots of record—revise statute to allow development by right for undersized lots if meet other dimensional requirements reduced by same ratio, otherwise need dimensional variance

NOTE: It’s a way to give minor relief without going through the whole process

  1. Eliminate rental application fee effective January 1, 2024

Sponsor: Rep. Cherie Cruz

  • Does not affect ability to charge for BCI and credit, which reports can be used again

NOTE: The RI Coalition to End Homelessness has advocated for this bill. There was a family written about in the Boston Globe who went through thousands of dollars in rental fees in pursuit of an apartment – and still doesn’t have an apartment. Applications for housing should not be a profit generator.

  1. Notice provisions in all land use statutes

Sponsor: Labor Committee Chairman Arthur Corvese

  • Standardizes notice requirements across all land use statutes
  • First class mail abutter mailings instead of certified
  • Posting on home page of municipal website
  • Posting at two public buildings

NOTE: The most important arguments are all done by mail. This eliminates an undue burden on people. There are still three means of notice.

  1. Extension of LMI Commission

Sponsor: Rep. Speakman

  • Adds Housing Network RI seat
  • Extends from 2023 to 2025
  • Purpose to include comprehensive review of “Housing Affordability’
  1. Extension of LU Commission

Sponsor: Rep. Joshua Giraldo

  • Extend from 2023 to 2025
  • Members subject to reappointment


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