While the ink is barely dry on the package of 14 bills proposed last week as part of a widespread affordable housing strategy endorsed by House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, it is worth taking a moment ahead of the vast amount of discussion these bills are sure to generate in order to set the groundwork for why they were proposed in the first place.
Rhode Island, like much of America, does not have enough housing that working-class people can afford to live in — and whatever the state is doing currently, clearly is not addressing that problem.
According to Shekarchi, Rhode Island is dead last in the country in the number of new single family building permits being issued, another indication that something is wrong in the Xs and Os of how the state and its individual municipalities handle proposed developments within their borders.
Some of that comes down to procedural red tape, which is a large pain point that legislation within the bill package attempts to remedy.
One bill introduced by Shekarchi would streamline the process for developments brought forth under the comprehensive permit, from three major steps developers must undergo before the local approving authority (be it a planning board, zoning board, town council, etc.) to just two steps, with a pre-application review able to be exercised by the municipality as well. Public input would remain a part of the preliminary approval process before moving to final approval. The new bill also places a more stringent deadline in place for municipalities to respond to, deliberate, and decide on developments.
Another bill in the package, also brought forth by Shekarchi, would do away with the state board responsible for handling denial appeals from developers (the State Housing Appeals Board, or SHAB), and place all appeals — whether by a developer who feels their project was shot down without merit, or a municipality who feels a denied development was improperly overturned by the SHAB — to the Superior Courts. This thinking makes good sense, since according to Shekarchi, 90% of land development cases wind up in that court system anyways, so it should simply save time and legal hours for all involved.
Other portions of the package relate to finding creative ways to create more housing by-right, including the building of accessory dwelling units of a certain size onto existing residences without the need for local planning approval, and removing zone change requirements for refitting buildings such as hospitals, schools, and industrial buildings into housing developments.
With these bills gaining bipartisan support, there is little doubt that, in theory, they should indeed make the process easier for developers to navigate and, in theory, build more developments throughout the state. However, we are yet to be convinced that the ultimate result will actually be more affordable housing throughout the state.
As the state’s affordable housing law currently dictates, developers need only include a minimum of 25% of units as “affordable,” which really means the federal HUD standard that amounts to 80% of area median income. How this results, in practice, is that “affordable” units produced that are still often priced far above and beyond what someone earning $50,000 or less can realistically afford without being house burdened (meaning spending 30% or more of their income on housing alone).
That semantic argument aside, the minimum requirement of 25% affordable units means the math will never work out to actually bring any municipality closer to the 10% overall affordable housing stock threshold targeted by the state, either. If a development builds 20 units, but only includes the minimum 5 affordable units, that community has still gone backwards by 15 units towards that goal. And why should a private developer, understandably looking to maximize their profit for their investment, be coerced to do more than the minimum 25%? The ideal solution will include a mix of private, for-profit developments that go above the minimum affordable threshold, with more developments from public housing groups that focus solely on building truly affordable units.
Locally, these bills are sure to draw out the NIMBY crowd as well. Those arguments, we have found, are more emotional than substantive in many cases. Something has to give when it comes to addressing our state’s housing problem. Speaker Shekarchi and the group of legislators who worked on these bills have taken an important step towards doing so — and they admit the work is not done.
We agree, as there are issues that remain tantamount to address.
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