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Opinion/Newberry: Making housing more affordable in RI

Providence Journal logo Providence Journal 3/8/2021 Brian C. Newberry, Guest columnist
a drawing of a face: Opinion © The Providence Journal Opinion

Brian C. Newberry represents North Smithfield/Burrillville and is a former minority leader of the Rhode Island House of Representatives.

Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi recently held a press conference in which he correctly made affordable housing a top legislative priority. Whether the legislature has a grasp of the real issues remains to be seen. 

The principal problem with affordable housing in Rhode Island is not a lack of "affordable" housing per se, but a lack of housing at all, coupled with all kinds of perverse incentives that make the cost of living artificially high while simultaneously making it extremely hard to build actual housing, affordable or otherwise. Supply and demand are the bedrock of economics, and while we have a lot of demand we have precious little supply.

My parents moved here from Connecticut a year ago. They needed a one-story condo in the median price range.  There was exactly one on the market statewide.  One.  Meanwhile, their property taxes doubled and their utility costs skyrocketed.

Want to make housing more affordable? Take steps to lower the overall cost of living so people can afford more for actual housing and that housing need not be so expensive in the first place. Stop enacting policies that subsidize "green energy" projects that artificially escalate our electric costs. Instead of incentivizing solar arrays in open space areas, let's use that space — if it's not to be left open — to build housing. 

Helping well-connected insiders build a few windmills in Rhode Island may make some people feel like they are "doing something," but that is not going to save the planet while China continues to pump CO2 into the air at massive rates. Let's forego the virtue signaling and focus on pocketbook issues for our constituents, something we can actually directly affect.

Why does it take so long to build anything in this state?  The Fain Tower is controversial and it isn't affordable housing but the years-long saga of will it or won't it get built showcases our development problems in a microcosm. What developer of anything is going to want to invest in this state when the red tape strangles everything?  There are plenty of other places where investment is welcome and it doesn't take years to get an answer.

The Seaport District in Boston has been booming with construction, commercial and residential, for a decade. Meanwhile, much of our prime 195 land remains vacant. Why? Start with the fact the costs to build in Providence match those in Boston but the rents don't.  Who would want to build here given the alternative?

Does anyone other than experts in landlord/tenant law have an understanding of just how tenant friendly our laws are, even compared to other states?  Who wants to be a landlord when — and this is a true story — it is practically impossible to evict a guest who overstays their welcome in your own house?  No doubt our laws are as lenient as they are because of long ago landlord abuses, but a rebalancing is in order.

The State Affordable Housing Act is 30 years old this year. Know how many towns comply with its 10% mandate? Six out of 39.  Six more are close. Thirteen out of 39 are below 5%.  While some have excuses — such as the fact mobile homes and in-law apartments don't qualify, or that no development of size will be built where infrastructure, sewers, water and public transportation are lacking — most of our communities do not. Spare me the social justice rallies and finger wagging about income inequality and racism when your town effectively blocks anyone of modest means from living there.

This is not a simple issue to address, but it is one we need to for everyone's sake, and it is going to require our policymakers to reimagine a lot of their own preconceived notions.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Opinion/Newberry: Making housing more affordable in RI

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