Around 40 people attended our Fresh Fridays virtual event on Jan. 26, 2024, which focused on the topic of zoning and provided a detailed look at the Rhode Island Zoning Atlas from HousingWorksRI. 

Panelists included: 

To start the session off, Brenda Clement, director of HousingWorks RI gave a brief history of zoning and how it has affected housing availability, diversity, and affordability. She explained how zoning began in the early 1900s as a public safety measure to separate residential and industrial uses, but later became a tool of exclusion and discrimination, especially against low-income and minority groups.

She cited a report from Boston that shows how downzoning was used to exclude low-income and minority groups from certain neighborhoods. HousingWorksRI’s vision, she said, is to have communities that embrace a wide variety of housing options and choices.

“We developed and started to work with the National Zoning Atlas Project so that we could utilize this tool to help communities plan for an inclusive rather than an exclusive approach to zoning,” Clement said.

She introduced her colleagues, Annette Bourne and Bryce Kelley, who are involved in the National Zoning Atlas Project, which is a collaborative effort to digitize and map zoning codes across the United States. 

Kelley showed a slide show to explain and demonstrate the RI Zoning Atlas. He said the Atlas maps regulations for housing types and lot sizes statewide. Many houses in Rhode Island don’t conform to current zoning laws, he said, either because they predate them or because they have obtained variances or special use permits. He gave an example of a three-family home in Cranston that does not meet the zoning requirements for its district because it sits on a smaller lot than is permitted, but that it fits well in the neighborhood. 

Kelley went on to say that the Zoning atlas took more than two years and a review of more than 6,000 pages of zoning text to complete. He went on to explain the three types of zoning districts: primary residential, mixed with residential, and non-residential. Most of the state, he said, is zoned for primary residential use, and single-family housing is allowed by right in 87% of the state, while multifamily housing is allowed by right in only 8% of the state. 

He went on to review the different sections of the zoning atlas and how users can drill down to get details about zoning where they live or work. 

Next up was Joelle Rocha, a partner at the law firm Duffy & Sweeney. Rocha said she specializes in land-use real estate development and litigation and works on a variety of projects, especially affordable housing. Rocha explained that one of the main challenges for developing affordable housing and multifamily housing is that most of the zoning in the state is designed for single-family housing. That zoning makes it difficult to build on smaller lots and that’s what makes it exclusionary. She notes that while the state created a comprehensive permit tool in 1991 to streamline the process and allow more housing to be built, there is often public opposition fueled by a lack of understanding over what low- and moderate-income housing is. 

Jennifer Hawkins, President & CEO of ONE Neighborhood Builders talked about how its Steeple & Stone development in Cumberland and Center City Apartments in East Providence have been affected by zoning. Hawkins noted that zoning regulations in the state are based on a 10% threshold of affordable housing in each community. But 10% can fluctuate depending on market rates and the number of affordable units being developed. This makes it difficult for developers and planner to navigate the comprehensive permit process that’s supposed to streamline the creation of affordable housing, she said.  

On a positive note, she said, the Legislature has made changes that improve the zoning review process, eliminating the need for master plan approval and zoning board hearings, saving developers time and money. New zoning requirements, she said, have reduced the parking space requirements for two-bedroom and smaller units. That allows for there to be more units and green space in developments.  

Hawkins gave an example of how Steeple & Stone in Cumberland would have benefited from these new requirements. The Town of Cumberland required two parking spaces per unit. Had the newest regulations been in place, ONE|NB could have had 24 fewer parking spaces, allowing for more units and green space. She said she wishes the law had changed sooner but added that these zoning changes will help improve future affordable housing developments in the state. 

She added that zoning regulations often limit the options for building projects that suit the community’s needs. Sometimes developers must pass on ideal parcels of land because they are zoned for single-family use only and look for other lots that are easier to develop but not as desirable. That’s a problem because it means that developers are prevented from creating the best housing for the community. 

Grace Evans Pedanou, ONE|NB’s Chief of Staff and moderator for the Friday’s session, asked how HousingWorks RI hopes people will use the RI Zoning Atlas. 

Kelley responded that he hopes the Atlas will be useful for people at the state, municipal, developer, and residential levels. He said it can help people understand how zoning impacts housing and compare different municipalities’ zoning practices. He added that the Atlas can help residents learn more about their own zoning and be more informed and supportive of housing developments. 

Clement said she believes the Atlas is important for ongoing and immediate conversations about transit, climate change, land use, and planning. She said it can help people see the potential for loss of housing due to sea level rise and flooding, and the need for directing growth to the urban growth boundary. She added that the Atlas can help people address the infrastructure and water and sewer challenges. 

During Q&A, participants addressed a variety of topics. 

Annette Bourne, research and policy director for HousingWorks RI, praised the Zoning Atlas project, highlighting the issue of legally nonconforming uses in Rhode Island. She noted downzoning can lead to exclusion and discrimination in housing, and urged people to look at their zoning history and have open conversations about how to improve it. She also said she hopes the urban services boundary shown in the Atlas would guide sustainable growth and housing affordability in the state.  

Tina Guenette Pedersen mentioned her nonprofit RAMP, an agency that works for accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities. She mentioned her appointment to the U.S. Access Board for Architecture and Transportation and claimed that Rhode Island is the least accessible state in the country. She described challenges and barriers that people with mobility impairments face in finding and accessing housing, and she criticized a bill on universal design that she said did not meet the needs of the disability community.  

Siva Kumar identified himself as a developer who builds new housing for people who need it. He said that the new zoning laws are helpful, but they do not address the parking requirements that make it hard to build on smaller lots. He said he must provide the same number of parking spaces for a three-family unit as for a single-family unit, which takes up a lot of space and makes the project more difficult. 

For more from this Fresh Fridays session, watch the video above.