Jennifer Hawkins, Executive Director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, speaks about the need for affordable housing in Rhode Island.
By Kate Bramson
ONE Neighborhood Builders
PROVIDENCE, RI — Governor Dan McKee gathered Wednesday with other State leaders at ONE Neighborhood Builders’ King Street Commons to announce the State is ready to begin allocating $12 million to jumpstart the state’s investment in affordable housing.
“Moments like this don’t always happen, where everybody’s aligned on a particular topic that is so important,” McKee said at a news conference at the King Street Commons child care center. “I know that together we can make it happen.”
Joining the Governor were Lt. Governor Sabina Matos; R.I. House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi; R.I. Senator Meghan E. Kallman; Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor; Deputy Secretary of Commerce for Housing Josh Saal; RIHousing Executive Director Carol Ventura; Providence Councilman Oscar Vargas; and Jennifer Hawkins, Executive Director of ONE Neighborhood Builders.
“In this hot real estate market, if you don’t have access to fast capital, you’re going to lose out.”
— Jennifer Hawkins, Executive Director, ONE Neighborhood Builders
Governor McKee announced that RIHousing will be issuing requests for proposals next week to begin allocating $12 million from Rhode Island’s Federal American Rescue Plan Act funds under a Site Acquisition Program. The program is designed to help municipalities, for-profit developers, and nonprofit housing developers acquire property where they can develop affordable and supportive housing. McKee shared this: “Ensuring that all Rhode Islanders have access to a safe and affordable home is critical to the success of Rhode Island families, our communities, and our state. It’s why I’ve made housing a top legislative priority.”
Wednesday’s event was the first public event attended by Rhode Island’s new Deputy Secretary of Commerce for Housing, Josh Saal, who began in that role four weeks ago.
“Let me just tell you—the excitement, the energy that I’ve encountered from Rhode Islanders across the state, across different sectors, has been infectious,” Saal said. “There’s a wide recognition in this state from all the people I’ve spoken to that there’s a tremendous—that we have a tremendous opportunity ahead of us.”
He spoke of the commitment from all the key players in Rhode Island’s political leadership to fund new housing initiatives, to renovate and preserve existing housing, and to ensure that Rhode Islanders finally have access to far more housing options. Saal spoke of support from Governor McKee, Lt. Governor Matos, Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, and House Speaker Shekarchi, whom Saal said has “challenged me personally.”
“Even in our Zoom call,” Saal continued, “He says, ‘We need to work with the different stakeholders, and we need to go big. This is not the time to just do the small work here. We really have to make some progress in housing.’ ”
RIHousing’s Ventura offered details about how much need exists in Rhode Island for housing.
“COVID has really emphasized how important affordable housing is to the health and economic well-being of Rhode Islanders,” Ventura said. “Over the past year, we’ve been proud to partner with the State and to deploy over $100 million in rent and utility assistance to keep more than 16,000 Rhode Islanders stably housed.”
Additionally, Ventura said, RIHousing received more than 1,900 applications for newly released homeowner assistance from families needing to pay past-due mortgage and utility bills.
“These programs are critical to keeping families from being displaced,” Ventura said. “But it’s clear that what we need most as a state is affordable homes for Rhode Islanders.”
In closing, Ventura and Hawkins told State leaders, housing advocates, and news reporters that the 2.2 acres where King Street Commons was built was purchased in part with funding assistance from a RIHousing program similar to what Governor McKee announced on Wednesday. Ventura said the development is a key example of how such funding can help developers secure properties in an extremely competitive housing market.
ONE Neighborhood Builders’ King Street Commons is a $17.5-million development that includes the construction of 30 new affordable apartments in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence; the development of the state-of-the-art child care facility that will be operated by Children’s Friend; and the preservation and renovation of 32 existing affordable apartments in Providence’s Elmwood neighborhood.
As Hawkins thanked attendees, she told them: “I couldn’t have imagined two-plus years ago having this press announcement located here in this building. Never in my wildest dreams would we be allocating hopefully $250 million—at least $250 million—toward housing. It is unprecedented.”
Hawkins spoke of recent news reports describing Rhode Islanders winning Housing Choice Vouchers that are intended to help defray their housing costs but being unable to use them due to low housing supply.
“The solution to that is production,” Hawkins said.
The $12-million Site Acquisition Program announced by McKee will use a portion of the $119 million in Federal Fiscal Recovery Funds that McKee proposed spending during the current fiscal year and that the General Assembly approved in early January. Hawkins addressed why such funding is crucial for helping housing developers buy property where they can build.
“In this hot real estate market, if you don’t have opportunity to have fast capital, you’re going to lose out. Gone are the days when property here in Olneyville was up for grabs and there was no competition,” Hawkins said. “Those days are absolutely gone, and being able to have expedient, flexible capital is essential, and so we really applaud the fact that the $12 million is going to be made available.”
Hawkins showed visitors the child care center, which is slated to open soon, but she said she could not show visitors the apartments in the building.
“I would give you a tour of the apartments,” she said. “But they were leased the second that the general contractor turned over the keys to us—speaking to the incredible demand for housing.”