Rhode Island’s housing crisis has been worsening for more than 20 years. The disconnect between what people make and what they can afford has grown wider over time, with the median cost of a home in the state now topping $400,000. The housing crisis is so serious that it has become a top issue in Rhode Island. But the state’s first so-called housing czar didn’t work out, and even when money gets allocated for housing, the process of putting it to work tends to move slowly. Is there any reason to think that Rhode Island can resolve its housing crisis? I’m Ian Donnis. This week, I’m going in-depth on housing with President and Executive Director of the nonprofit developer One Neighborhood Builders Jennifer Hawkins.

Ian Donnis: Rhode Island is hardly alone in having a housing crisis and housing is certainly a complex issue. But Rhode Island's housing crisis has worsened over more than 20 years. Can we agree that the failure to address it over this time is a failure of public leadership?

Jennifer Hawkins: I think it's a matter of the public will not necessarily being there to address the housing crisis. It's also a fact of the matter that there haven't been adequate resources, given the economic climate of the state in the preceding decades to really allocate the resources necessary to address the crisis.

Ian Donnis: Now that housing has emerged in the last two years or so as a major issue for the state. Do you think that there will be significant progress over the next five or 10 years?

Jennifer Hawkins: I'm very hopeful, you know, the governor was the first governor in many years to allocate resources for housing. Speaker Shekarchi has made this a priority. And so the leadership that we have at the Statehouse is unprecedented. There, certainly the $250 million that was allocated to housing is also unprecedented. But it should be clear that that $250 million that we often talk about is actually not all for production, only $177 million of it set aside for production and preservation of existing housing. We are grateful for that, but it's wholly inadequate. And so while we are at this moment where it the housing crisis is in the public consciousness, that we're coming out of COVID, we recognize that cases of COVID were higher in areas where there is overcrowded living situations, we know that we need to do this, we need to address this issue. And I am hopeful that with this awareness will come additional resources.

Ian Donnis: You mentioned $250 million, and how that's a lot of money but inadequate to resolve the housing crisis. How much money will it take? And do you see this as being primarily a responsibility of state government? Are there other sources of funding? And how much housing will it take to resolve the housing crisis?

Jennifer Hawkins: You know, it's really important that we have a better sense of the need, both the dollars that are required, as well as the number of units that we need to build as a state. In 2016, Housing Works and Rhode Island Housing co-commissioned a report and at that time, they predicted that we would need 35,000 more units of housing over the next decade. We have come nowhere close to achieving anything near that. So you could say, Well, why do we need to know precisely the number of housing units. And we all can agree that we need 1000s of units. But I do think the granularity of what AMI or area median income is necessary. The apartment size or for sale, home size, whether it's one or two bedrooms, and where within Rhode Island, those housing units need to be constructed is really important that we do need to have that level of specificity. And I am encouraged by the fact that the newly created Department of Housing is seeking to understand our housing need at that level. And once we have a greater understanding of that, then we can be able to put numbers around that need. We all just know that there's a lot more and a lot more money.

Ian Donnis: Speaking of the newly created Department of Housing, Stefan Pryor, formerly of the state's commerce director started this week as the new housing director. He has some assets, certainly including a strong knowledge of state government. He's very comfortable talking with reporters like me. At the same time as commerce director, he championed big projects like the rehab of the Superman building, the new soccer stadium in Pawtucket. Do you think he has the – will have the right approach to change gears and focus on creating housing at the different income levels that are needed in Rhode Island?

Jennifer Hawkins: I believe that Secretary Pryor has shown himself to be a very effective manager and to work closely with the governor in the administration. This is clearly a priority for the administration and I believe that Stefan Pryor will carry out those wishes. He has reached out to me, we've had a good conversation. And I've made it very clear that community development corporations, the nonprofit developer, such as One Neighborhood Builders, can be his greatest ally, that we are working in the space of providing deeply affordable housing. And that while the private sector is an important contributor to housing in general, for those of us who really care deeply about developing high quality, deeply affordable housing, the nonprofits are going to be his best friend.

Ian Donnis: You're setting up a lot of my segues. So thank you for making my job easier. Your organization, One Neighborhood Builders is rare among developers that create affordable housing across different communities. How have you been able to overcome the red tape and other local zoning that can often be an impediment to affordable housing?

Jennifer Hawkins: You know, I would like to think that we work in communities where we've been invited, and where there really is the mayor and the planning departments are actively encouraging the development of affordable housing because they understand that health is housing. And we are proud to be now working in the city of Cumberland, city of Central Falls and in East Providence. In all three instances, the mayors there have been nothing but really welcoming.

Ian Donnis: I reported a few years ago on how Central Falls, one of the state's poorest communities, was not able to get any money at the time from Rhode Island Housing for affordable housing. That seemed kind of perverse. I know there have been some changes since then you're on the ground in Central Falls. How do you see the outlook for improving the housing stock and affordable housing stock there,

Jennifer Hawkins: We're optimistic that the city of Central Falls has been a true partner, they acquired two pieces of property: a former Dunkin Donuts, one of the few Dunkin Donuts in the state to go out of business, and a former police precinct across the street. And so by really acquiring the land and saying this is what we want here. And then partnering with us, they really helped cut through that red tape that you mentioned, Ian. And I think that municipalities can be our partners. And when they lead the way by identifying parcels of land that they want to see housing placed on. That makes it so much smoother for partners like One Neighborhood Builders to then come and do work.

Ian Donnis: Nonetheless, as Eli Sherman from WPRI reported last week, local communities are lining up in Rhode Island against any statewide imposition of zoning changes, if local zoning is a big impediment to new development, and if local communities are opposed to zoning changes, what is the answer?

Jennifer Hawkins: You know, I would say let's start with the early adopters. Let's focus on the municipalities where they already have access to infrastructure where there is already RIPTA bus lines. Let's start in those communities because there's plenty of those communities that can do, can contribute greater to the solution. Yes, the rural communities may find a requirement of a density bonus unpalatable but, you know, let's focus first on where there could be easier successes. And I think that there's plenty of communities where there's lots of land that is not wetlands, they have a bus stop within a quarter of a mile. And there's already city water and sewer. Let's start there.

Ian Donnis: There's a lot of housing bureaucracy in Rhode Island. There's Rhode Island housing local housing authorities, the housing Resources Commission, this new housing office being head up by Stefan Pryor. When Josh Saal came in as the former housing czar, Speaker Shekarchi wanted him to kind of tame and make more efficient the bureaucracy. That has not happened. How do you see the outlook on this?

Jennifer Hawkins: You know, there's a lot of players because housing is a complicated issue. Akin to education, we don't just have, you know, Rhode Island Department of Education, each municipality has their own department of education, and then you've got, you know, higher education, you've early learning centers. And so housing in the same respect is highly complex. And so it requires a lot of these agencies and I am hopeful that the Department of Housing will serve as a conductor in getting all of these different agencies to kind of sing the same song if you will, but it requires a capacity it requires the resources to do that and I I am hopeful that the Department of Housing will be able to staff up as the Governor has recommended,

Ian Donnis: Speaking to the governor, there you go with the segues again, Governor McKee has defended his administration's efforts to house the homeless and help the homeless. Nonetheless, it seems like the state has been unprepared for the onset of winter and the needs of the homeless each of the last two years, what is your assessment?

Jennifer Hawkins: You know, it is true, we know that Winter's coming every year. And I believe as a state, you know, we can walk and chew gum at the same time and we can invest in emergency solutions. While we also keep our eye on investing in permanent solutions, such as permanent housing. We know that housing is truly the only solution to homelessness. So I am glad to see that we have been able to expand emergency solutions, such as the opening of that 24 hour warming center at Cranston armory, but no one believes that that is going to actually solve homelessness. It's just a brief respite.

Ian Donnis: Finally, it used to be that the availability of cheap mill space in and around Providence was a big attraction for young artists and musicians. And it really fostered Providence’s identity as a creative incubator. I wonder if with the loss of that inexpensive mill space, is the city's role or identity as a creative incubator, has that been lost?

Jennifer Hawkins: You know, we One Neighborhood Builders is headquartered in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence, which definitely is characterized by your description. And it, it's always concerning to me, whether – when neighborhoods start to lose that character. And I think that the best antidote to sort of the gentrification or displacement that could occur is by having community ownership of land. And that way, we can make sure that artists and urban pioneers and low income families and immigrants who have been calling these neighborhoods homes long before they became cool to live in, will continue to be able to live there. So that's why, you know, we, One Neighborhood Builders, own so much property so that successive generations of families can continue to call that neighborhood home.

Ian Donnis: All right, we've got to leave it there. Jennifer Hawkins, President and Executive Director of One Neighborhood Builders, thank you so much for joining us.

Jennifer Hawkins: Thank you, Ian.


They say that politics makes strange bedfellows. For proof, look no further than the Rhode Island House of Representatives. That’s where the head of the nine-member GOP caucus, Michael Chippendale of Foster, sponsored a bill this week with the Democratic socialist state Representative from Providence, David Morales. In an age of hyper-partisanship in Washington, it might seem unusual for a conservative and a leftist to team up at the Rhode Island Statehouse. But Chippendale and Morales say their bill aimed at lowering prescription drug costs shows how there’s an opportunity to find common ground. You can read about alliance and a lot more in my weekly TGIF column, posting around 4 this afternoon at thepublicsradio.org or on Twitter @IanDon.