On a recent Thursday, the heads of four nonprofit agencies gathered outside a blighted former nursing home on Taunton Avenue in East Providence. They came together to make the case for building a 160-unit apartment complex on a three-acre site that includes two vacant lots. The housing would serve a mix of different needs -- the formerly unhoused, young people aging out of foster care, and low-to-moderate income individuals squeezed by the high cost of housing.

Supporters call this proposal -- known as the Taunton Avenue Collaborative -- an innovative way to chip away at the housing crisis. And, they say, it makes good financial sense since permanent housing is less costly in the long run than emergency housing.

“The fact that we’re taking a blighted abandoned property and turning it into desperately needed housing in this collaborative effort with four organizations that voluntarily came together in a sector that doesn’t get credit for doing that is, I think, unprecedented," said Karen Santilli, CEO of Crossroads Rhode Island. “This could be a model for the state and the country.”

But there’s a catch. To complete the project in roughly two years, the Taunton Avenue Collaborative is seeking a $28 million state appropriation.

Without that, it will take years longer and cost a lot more in borrowing to finish the development. Money is often at the heart of the state’s housing shortage. The proposal appears likely to get some state dollars, but not nearly the $28 million needed to expedite completion -- a funding gap that reflects how Rhode Island is just beginning to confront its housing crisis.

As House Speaker Joe Shekarchi put it, “I recognized from the very beginning it would be a multi-year effort.”

Shekarchi has raised the focus on housing, in part by supporting a package of 14 bills making their way through the General Assembly. The legislation is meant to streamline permitting, encourage the adaptive reuse of commercial buildings, and expand the housing supply, in part by allowing more accessory dwelling units, also known as granny flats. Shekarchi said filling Rhode Island’s need for 24,000 additional housing units will require a different mindset, a sustained effort, and new housing at a variety of income levels.

“We’re headed in the right direction, and I think that we just need to continue the work,” he said during a recent interview in his Statehouse office. “It’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be fast, and the solutions will be multi-year.”


Solutions will be multi-year because the housing crisis festered for a quarter-century. The number of housing starts in Rhode Island fell from the late ’80s until it was last in the nation, on a per capita basis, in 2021. And the median sales price of a home has soared to $425,000, reflecting how housing is unaffordable for many Rhode Islanders.

A recent study done for the Rhode Island Foundation found that a third of households are cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing. For the neediest Rhode Islanders, the situation is even worse. The number of unsheltered homeless people here jumped by 56 percent since 2020, the second-highest increase in the U.S.

State Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor said this all adds up to the housing crisis now faced by the state.

“We’re driving our children and our grandchildren out of state to find housing that they can afford,” Pryor said. “This should not be. We’ve got to seize the moment. We’ve got to do a lot.”

Rhode Island’s attempt to tame its housing crisis comes at the worst possible time, as higher interest rates have chilled the climate for development. And there are many other impediments: municipal zoning that discourages multi-family housing, the stigma sometimes associated with affordable housing, and the siloed quality of the state’s housing bureaucracy, to name a few.


Nonetheless, state leaders are now prioritizing housing.

Last year’s Rhode Island budget steered $250 million in American Rescue Plan Act money for housing, with more than half of that meant to build new units. Gov. Dan McKee included $30 million in his latest budget proposal to aid the homeless. And the governor spoke during a recent meeting of the board of Rhode Island Housing to approve the award of funds that will build or preserve almost 1,500 units of housing around the state. That’s about 6 percent of the identified need, but McKee called it a sign of progress.

“I’ve said this many times: this is a 39-city and town effort,” McKee said. “And we’ve got to make that each and every category that needs to be addressed in housing, that our communities -- all communities -- share in that work.”

But building even that new housing will take a few years. And while McKee cites buy-in from local communities as a vital ingredient, getting local support is sometimes a challenge.

As Speaker Shekarchi said, “A lot of cities and towns can find lots of reasons not to approve a project: ‘we don’t have enough staff. We don’t have enough infrastructure. We don’t have enough room in our schools.’ There’s always going to be a reason to deny a housing project.”


State Sen. Gordon Rogers (R-Foster) formed an alliance with local officials from other towns because they felt their concerns were being overlooked.

Rogers said he remains anxious that the state may exert too much power now that housing is a hot topic. In particular, while the advocacy group HousingWorksRI says that less than five percent of housing in Foster is affordable, Rogers thinks the percentage is considerably higher and he fears that adding new housing could hike costs for longtime residents.

“They can’t even fix the house,” he said. ‘So to step over them is really a disservice. We need to be able to count the ones we have.”

When it comes to rural communities, Rogers said the state should foster growth in clusters: “It’s almost like they’re focusing on one component, when many components to bring the community to the table may be commerce, technology parks, public transportation specific to that development and that housing and retail.”

A $29 million budget amendment recently introduced by Gov. McKee tries to address some of these issues. It includes a few million dollars to boost the planning capacity for towns and help them with the infrastructure needed to support housing, like water, sewer and roads.

McKee’s amendment also includes more tools, as state Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor explained during a briefing. One would remove Rhode Island’s dubious distinction as one of only two Northeast states without a low-income housing tax credit that can be used to leverage federal funds.

“We are leaving federal tax credits and therefore federal dollars on the table every year,” Pryor said.


Pryor is less than a year into his role of state housing secretary, a relatively new position in Rhode Island state government. And he has his challenges cut out for him.

For now, Rhode Island’s top housing agency uses borrowed office space from the Commerce Department and it doesn’t have its own web site. The 17-person department is looking to more than double in size with 21 new employees. And he’s supposed to lead an effort to create a statewide plan to tackle the housing crisis, building on the findings of the Rhode Island Foundation report. That’s at least a year from completion.

Still, housing advocates believe things are moving in the right direction. In East Providence, at the site of the envisioned Taunton Avenue Collaborative, head of the nonprofit developer One Neighborhood Builders Jennifer Hawkins said she sees momentum and political will that didn’t exist that long ago.

“There are people who are talking about the affordable housing crisis who, it was not on their minds a few years ago,” Hawkins said. “I think that we’ve reached a tipping point, and I’m really optimistic that there’s going to be the resources to make measurable change.”

For those facing the brunt of Rhode Island’s housing crisis, progress can’t come soon enough.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. Follow him on Twitter @IanDon. Sign up here for email delivery of his weekly RI politics newsletter.