Jennifer Hawkins, President & CEO of ONE Neighborhood Builders, testifies before the Special Legislative Commission to Study Housing Affordability on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023. Click here to watch the entire hearing on Capitol TV.

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By Stephen Ide
ONE Neighborhood Builders

Jennifer Hawkins, President and CEO of ONE Neighborhood Builders, cautioned lawmakers that immediate action is needed to fund affordable housing developments, particularly as American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money is expected to be fully obligated by the end of next year, despite recent progress in funding for such projects.

“When ARPA funding is fully obligated … a question that should be keeping us all up at night is what will fill that hole?” Hawkins said. “We cannot go backwards. We’ve got to continue this momentum.”

Of the $250 million made available in Rhode Island from ARPA funds, $161.5 million was designated for affordable housing development.

Hawkins said that every effort must be made to fund affordable housing using every tool at our disposal, from state and municipal bonds, direct budget allocations, to low-income housing tax credits (without which it is almost impossible to develop affordable units). She said the state should incentivize municipalities to identify available sites for housing and partner with developers to clear the way for more affordable housing.

“I really think that we can celebrate realistic and measurable progress made in every city and town, and I think there’s a way of doing that and partnering with the cities and towns,” Hawkins said.

In her testimony before the Special Legislative Commission to Study Housing Affordability on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023, Hawkins noted that there are three ways to develop and maintain affordable housing: protecting existing housing through long-term deed restrictions, preserving affordable housing through renovations, and producing new or adaptively reusing existing properties for housing.

As examples, she pointed to ONE|NB developments Sutton Place in East Providence (protecting existing housing), Providence’s Elmwood Revitalization II (preserving), and Broad Street Homes in Central Falls (adaptive reuse and new property).

Hawkins said she aimed to dispel the myth that recent investments in housing have been slow to produce apartments. As an example, she showed a case study of Center City Apartments in East Providence.

The development, ONE|NB’s largest on 3 acres, will include 144 apartments with a mix of income levels, including 40% dedicated to permanent supportive housing. There is a RIPTA bus stop in front of the property and it is close to area amenities.

Hawkins noted the challenges ONE|NB faced during the planning and zoning stages, emphasizing the need for zoning relief. The initial proposal of 160 apartments was lowered to 144 due to concerns over parking and the removal of a planned onsite child-care facility. In the end, the cost for producing affordable housing ended at $31,400 per unit, instead of $27,000 per unit, making rents more expensive to make the development possible. Center City Apartments is slated to start leasing in September 2026.

Hawkins noted the uniqueness of the development, including the opportunity to partner with Crossroads, Foster Forward, and Family Service of Rhode Island to provide integrated, mixed-income, permanent supportive housing.

In her extensive testimony, Hawkins explained that building affordable housing presents significant math problems for developers. Operating quality housing costs more than extremely low-income households can afford in rent. And without rental subsidies, she said, it becomes financially challenging for landlords to provide housing at such low rents due to high operating costs.

Hawkins said developers face challenges like fluctuating interest rates and decreasing tax credit prices in affordable housing projects. She said there are tradeoffs between saving money and ensuring quality. Most important, she said, is a need for reliable funding and improved zoning to streamline and allow for more development.