Senate bill would create state Department of Housing
Rhode Island has an array of housing organizations doing great work, such as Rhode Island Housing, Roger Williams University’s HousingWorks RI, and local organizations such as Pawtucket Central Falls Development, she said.
But Kallman, who is vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Housing and Municipal Government, said there was clearly a need to put more “muscle” behind a single entity that could create more housing across the state.
She noted that Rhode Island law already requires that 10% of every city and town’s housing stock qualify as low- or moderate-income housing. But only six of the state’s 39 municipalities meet that threshold: Providence, Newport, Woonsocket, Central Falls, Burrillville and Block Island.
“That tells me we need to put more muscle and capacity behind this rule,” Kallman said. “If cities and towns haven’t been able to achieve this goal two decades later, we need to create the tools and capabilities they don’t have.”
She said the proposal would fit in with housing legislation championed by House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Democrat from Warwick.
For example, Shekarchi introduced a bill raise the post from assistant secretary of commerce for housing to a cabinet-level position, saying the state needs someone who is responsible for coordinating all the different housing programs and who is accountable for results. And Kallman said the cabinet member could lead the proposed housing ministry.
Kallman called for using $300 million in American Recovery Plan Act funds to launch the new department, which would have the power to acquire land and build, own and operate affordable housing, as well as issue contracts. with others to do this work. Municipalities and nonprofits could also apply for funding to build affordable housing.
“We have a unique opportunity to solve the housing crisis,” Kallman said. “Federal stimulus funds will allow us to both pump money directly into housing construction and also invest in the kind of statewide planning infrastructure that will allow us to have a solid, long-term housing plan for the future. Housing is a human right and the foundation of well-being, and we need an agency equipped to make safe, clean, and affordable housing a reality for all Rhode Islanders.
Kallman’s bill has six Senate co-sponsors, including Senate Speaker Dominick J. Ruggerio, Democrat of North Providence. No complementary bill has yet been presented to the House.
Reclaim RI, a social justice group formed by Rhode Island leaders from U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, said it had made the “Homes for All” campaign its top priority and would would push for the law on the creation of houses.
“Rhode Island faces a severe housing crisis compounded by the pandemic and decades of inaction,” said Jordan Goyette, political director of Reclaim RI. “This bill is bold and recognizes that the status quo cannot solve the problem and that the state government needs the tools to step in and build new affordable housing at scale.”
Brenda Clement, director of HousingWorks RI, said the Home Creation Act would “give the state government the resources to address long-standing housing issues.”
She called the bill “a good first step in addressing the urgent housing needs we face,” saying “safe and affordable housing provides an important foundation for our state’s economic growth and also improves the health and educational outcomes of our state’s residents”.