The following is a reprint of an interview with House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Warwick) published in the July 2021 issue of The Rhode Island Builder, a monthly magazine published by the Rhode Island Builders Association since 1951. THE BUILDER:
The following is a reprint of an interview with House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Warwick) published in the July 2021 issue of The Rhode Island Builder, a monthly magazine published by the Rhode Island Builders Association since 1951.
THE BUILDER: From your perspective, what is the current state of housing in Rhode Island?
SHEKARCHI: That’s an easy answer. As your readers know, we have a tremendous shortage of housing. Inventory is roughly one-third of what it has been historically. Prices are through the roof, especially post-COVID. THE BUILDER: What are the social implications of this crisis?
SHEKARCHI: Clearly, people have to make decisions about paying rent vs. being able to eat, and how to support their families. The difficulties of obtaining the basic necessities of life are causing many to move into very crowded situations, sharing homes and apartments. During the pandemic last year, we saw how unhealthy it is to have two or three families living in the same home. THE BUILDER: You’ve said that the housing crisis has business implications also.
SHEKARCHI: First of all, without enough housing stock, many big employers who might want to relocate here can’t find housing for their workforce. So, it gives them pause. That even affects us when employers want to move to Massachusetts, because Rhode Island is a lower-cost housing option. So border communities like Woonsocket and Cumberland have seen sustained increases in housing demand driven by cross-border workers coming to Rhode Island to live.
We’ve seen this in parts of South County too, with Pfizer coming into Connecticut. In our respect, it helps that we’re a lower-cost option than Massachusetts or Connecticut, but we’re pricing ourselves out. The parity is getting closer and closer because there are not a lot of good real estate deals left in Rhode Island.
It’s more and more difficult for us to increase the inventory of new homes. The regulatory processes, the large-lot zoning requirements, Dept. of Environmental Management (DEM) permitting, the Army Corps of Engineers, issues of drinking-water capacity, sewer capacity…these are all very important factors that limit the growth of new housing stock. THE BUILDER: Particularly with some of the legislation you’ve sponsored, do you feel that we finally have a statewide housing policy on the way?
SHEKARCHI: Yes. Part of our legislative package this year is a bill I sponsored to create a housing czar who would do two things. First, to coordinate. We have some very strong advocates for low- to moderate-income housing. Rhode Island Housing and HousingWorks RI are just two examples, one a state agency and the other a private sector not-for-profit.
We don’t have one coordinated policy like Massachusetts does. So, a housing czar would help coordinate a statewide housing policy. We can have metrics. The General Assembly can call that person before various committees to find out what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong…and basically tell the General Assembly what we need to do to help alleviate this problem. THE BUILDER: Can you tell us about the two legislative commissions now being formed and how they can help with the housing crisis?
SHEKARCHI: One commission will review the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act, to be chaired by Dr. June Speakman, a professor at Roger Williams University. They will have one year to conduct studies, have hearings and report their findings to the General Assembly.
Also, there will be a larger and more diverse legislative commission to study all aspects of land use, preservation, development, production, regulation, zoning, housing and the environment. They will also have a year to conduct hearings and find out the best way to modernize and update our land-use policies. We haven’t done that since 1990.
In the last 30 years, since both of these issues were addressed, there have been dramatic changes with the environment, with housing, with tax credits, with large-lot zoning, with capacity issues with water and sewer systems, and more. Take Jamestown, for example. Half the island has municipal drinking water and half doesn’t. Parts of Warwick don’t have municipal drinking water.
There’s a hodgepodge of regulatory agencies, and every one of them can become an impediment to the ability to construct a home, to build up housing stocks.
We want to look at zoning. If we can zone a commercial building, why can’t we automatically allow mixed zoning so that we could have a park or re-use of some of the old commercial buildings as housing?
We’ll look at tax credits. We’ve used historic tax credits in the past to spur development. We might want to continue that practice, but now use it to spur affordable housing or a combination thereof. Suppose 51 percent of any tax credit we give you will have to be used for affordable housing, workforce housing.
We want to make sure that a young family getting started or a young professional graduating college wants to stay in Rhode Island to either build a business, stay in a family business, or get a job with one of the employers coming here, staying here and growing.
Fidelity just announced 500 new jobs in Rhode Island. We have to make sure those people have good homes in good areas, so they can raise families. THE BUILDER: With any potential reform of the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act, how could you be sure that it’s going to have any more teeth than the original law did?
SHEKARCHI: That’s one thing we’ll be looking at, but we also want to consider ways to incentivize communities. We have some federal infrastructure money that Sen. Jack Reed and our congressional delegation were able to obtain for us. So, we now have ways to incentivize the expansion of a sewer line or drinking-water line, or to improve the capacity of a system. Another approach could be to tap city and town aid for communities that just refuse to even make an attempt at affordable housing. There are a lot of tools available.
We need to look at expanding our housing authorities here in Rhode Island. They do a very good job operating and managing it, but we need to stimulate them to grow, to increase their housing stock, because that helps everybody. There’s just a tremendous need for more housing all across the spectrum, especially on the lower economic side of the scale.
This commission will have a broad base of people from all walks of life to balance its work. THE BUILDER: Getting back to the notion of a statewide housing policy, how would you envision cooperation between state government, local governments and the private sector in solving the housing problem overall?
SHEKARCHI: That will be one of the functions of the two commissions we discussed, to find best practices. But, it will really come down to the housing czar, someone whose full-time job will be crafting the best housing policy.
There are 49 other states we can look at for examples. What are they doing in Arizona to solve their housing problems? What are they doing in Texas? Right now, we don’t have anyone who looks at the whole picture, the comprehensive housing policies that exist throughout the country.
What’s the best place for us to emulate? We might find a policy here or a strategy there that would work for us. I think we all realize, though, that there’s no one silver bullet, no one-size-fits-all policy that will get this done. It’s going to be a collaborative, long-term, sustainable effort of prioritizing it, funding it and making it happen. THE BUILDER: In addition to housing, what is your overall pro-business policy going forward?
SHEKARCHI: The immediate goal is to help all Rhode Island businesses recover from this COVID crisis. Just last Friday (May 21st) the General Assembly passed, and the governor signed, legislation that would help small businesses attract more workers. People have been staying home and collecting unemployment rather than working, so now we’ll be able to expand the WorkShare Program in Rhode Island to help people collect unemployment but also go back to work.
I want to look at our tax policies to make sure we’re competitive with our neighbors. We’ve increased the minimum wage to help workers go back to work. We want a sustainable path. I was author of the Qualified Jobs Incentive Tax Credit, with over 3,000 Rhode Islanders participating in that program at no cost to the state. It helps generate high-paying, private-sector jobs.
We’re looking at a lot of creative ways to be receptive to the business community, and we need to look at what other states are doing and to make sure that businesses thrive here. For example, we signed a 20-year deal with IGT and Twin River, two very successful, growing companies, the third largest source of revenue in the state, locking them in by giving them contracts and extending their current contracts. Gov. Don Carcieri was the original author of that 20 years ago, and I give him and the General Assembly credit for that.
If IGT didn’t have that lottery contract, there’s no reason for them to keep their 1,100 jobs here in Rhode Island. Zero. We want Twin River and Bally’s Corp., which are exploding with growth, to stay here in Rhode Island and to pay better wages.
We have 39 cities and towns, a beautiful coastline, and Narraganset Bay. Rhode Island is a desirable place to live, and we have great institutions. We’re looking at what’s going to happen with our hospital systems – will they merge or not – and what will be best for patient care, for job protections. The health sector is a very large employer in Rhode Island. THE BUILDER: Speaking of jobs, can you comment on the importance of career and technical education in the state, with which the Rhode Island Builders Association is heavily involved through Real Jobs Rhode Island?
SHEKARCHI: Yes. Especially during the pandemic, skilled workers have been much in demand, especially in the residential construction industry, which was deemed essential. Those who could do those skilled jobs operated all through the pandemic with precautions and protections, but they operated. We need that skilled workforce!
When I put together the “skinny budget” back in December, we made sure there was extra money put into the Real Jobs Rhode Island program for that reason: To help train and grow the skilled workforce. We’ve set up a training center in northern Rhode Island, with CVS, to help make sure there is enough staffing for pharmacies in the future. We’ve done one with Electric Boat, with the Community College of Rhode Island and with New England Tech. It’s important for us to work collaboratively with them to keep that pipeline of education for people interested in working in the trades. THE BUILDER: What’s your overall message for the residential construction industry?
SHEKARCHI: Hope is on the way! I hear you loud and clear. We’re doing everything we can to increase housing stock, to help with the regulatory burdens.
As I’ve said many times, it’s not always the state. It’s the cities and towns that somehow can become burdensome. We have passed the “quorum bill,” which RIBA supported. Sometimes local boards can’t get a quorum together for a meeting. That can mean a delay, or two delays. That’s 60 to 90 days for a development application. This bill will help eliminate that.
Also supported by RIBA, we’ve limited the practice of sharing building inspectors, who sometimes couldn’t return a phone call because they were working for two, three or even four towns at once. We’ve also made permitting changes, so that once a project has been accepted by a city or town, they have to act within 45 days.
We will continue to make changes like this not to supplant local authority, but to make sure they act in a timely manner. As your readers know, the worst thing you can do to a builder is not to say “yes” or “no,” it’s to not act. So, help is on the way.