RI Needs Affordable Housing. Here's Why It's So Hard To Build More.

Mar 1, 2017

This past November, Rhode Islanders voted for a $50 million dollar bond to build more affordable housing. 

Now, housing advocates, government officials, and policy makers are hard at work on a plan to disperse that money for affordable housing projects across the state. But it may be years before we see those new homes popping up across the state. Meanwhile thousands are already waiting to move in.

There are thousands of people on wait lists around the state hoping for a place in subsidized housing unit. Rhode Island faces a housing shortage in general. This has a disproportionately negative effect on the poorest people in the state, who have little choice in their housing. But building more affordable housing is an arduous process.

According to Carrie Zaslow, the vice chair of the state’s Housing Resources Commission, a group that works affordable housing policy for the state, there are two major barriers to building more affordable housing in Rhode Island.

“The first being that the cost of developing affordable housing is close to the cost of developing housing in Boston,” said Zaslow.

And that’s expensive. When you’re building affordable housing there are limits on how much a home can be sold or rented for, and it’s usually well-below market rate. Meaning, you likely won’t recoup those high construction costs.

“So even as a nonprofit developer of affordable housing you’re not necessarily looking to make profit, but you do need to make sure that you’re breaking even, and it’s very challenging to do that here in Rhode Island,” said Zaslow.

Jean Lamb is one of those nonprofit developers. She’s the head of the Smith Hill Community Development Corporation.

“I can’t even count how many number of projects that I look at that just don’t make it to the drawing board,” said Lamb.

Community Development Corporations, or CDCs, are nonprofits building affordable housing. Her group is just one of many in Rhode Island. Every day, Lamb pores over classified ads, auction announcements, or just walks around her gritty Smith Hill neighborhood looking for abandoned houses she can buy. They aren’t hard to find.

“Fast forward almost 24 to 36 months later – turn-key for a new tenant – it can take two to three years to develop a piece of property to move a resident in,” said Lamb.

By comparison, it takes just nine months to develop a market-rate building in New England, according to the National Association of Home Builders. If she does find that perfect building, first she has to compete with for-profit developers, who often have cash at the ready. A nonprofit like hers does not.

Lamb recalls a recent auction she attended.

“Walking over I was faced with probably six or seven landlords, and they’re all there with their money, and they’re ready to bid.”

But let’s say Lamb gets the property. She now faces the obstacle of paying for those high construction costs.

It takes a whole bunch of funding sources to build just one unit of affordable housing: federal money, city money, and state money (some of which is available in the form of that housing bond). But it’s not enough.

And when you go looking for money, funders want to see that you already have other funders lined up. They don’t want to sign onto a project that could fall through. It’s kind of like jumping into a pool naked. No one wants to be the first one to do it. That’s why it takes so long to build.

And here’s another reason: local opposition.

“You’ll see communities rise up, and either oppose it, and you’ll see different types of zoning come up,” said Carrie Zaslow. “[It] makes it very difficult to build.”

Public backlash can derail these projects.

“Their opposition is often is based on the fact that they believe that people who don’t have jobs, who aren’t productive members of society, are going to be moving into their community, and are ultimately going to be a burden on their community,” said Zaslow.

In other words, people hanging out on the government dole. That’s a misconception said Zaslow.

“When we’re talk about affordable housing we’re talking about housing for people who are the people that we see every day working,” said Zaslow. “The EMTs, the teacher’s aids, these are people who need affordable housing.”

In Pawtucket, Maria Diaz lives in a three bedroom apartment, managed by the Pawtucket Housing Authority. She works in event planning, and pays about $250 a month for the place. Her rent is subsidized by the housing authority.

She says she’s still decorating, but one wall is lined with framed photographs.

“This is my favorite wall, because of the pictures,” said Diaz. “My children, my mom, my parents when they were kids, and graduations for the kids. Family.”

Diaz shares this apartment with her two young daughters. She’s been here eight months. Before this apartment, Diaz and her children were essentially homeless. After leaving a bad relationship, the family jumped between couch surfing, efficiency apartments, and motels. For two years, her name was on various housing wait lists in Pawtucket and Providence. Diaz is a lucky case.

Carrie Zaslow said this misconception about who lives in affordable housing has trickled into political thinking as well. You may be hard-pressed to find a lawmaker opposed to affordable housing in principle, but Zaslow said there isn’t a widespread political will to make it a priority.

“For politicians, there’s also a misconception,” said Zaslow. “It gets lumped in with, sort of, entitlements," like Medicaid or welfare. But those get state funding. Affordable housing doesn’t get included in the regular budget. Instead it gets a kind of loan, like this most recent bond. That’s not so in other states, said Zaslow.

“We can look at our neighboring states of Massachusetts and Connecticut, and see that they have made as states, investment in making sure that they are funding affordable housing as part of their state budget,” said Zaslow. “That has not happened in Rhode Island yet.”