A rendering of the Taunton Avenue Collaborative shows the outside of the proposed affordable housing
development in East Providence. PROVIDED BY ONE NEIGHBORHOOD BUILDERS
By Jennifer Hawkins
Special to The Providence Journal
While it’s not revelatory, the Rhode Island Foundation’s recent independent report on housing is incredibly valuable. The report offers 182 pages of vital validation of the arguments my colleagues in housing and community development and I have been making for years. Its thesis is simple: Rhode Island is deep into a housing crisis that we can’t simply build our way out of. Secondly and more importantly, it lays out specific policy recommendations distilled from research inside and outside Rhode Island.
In my view, the structural challenges fall into three categories: a balkanized system that separates housing developers and owners from homeless outreach and emergency shelter providers; lack of predictable and sufficient state resources to produce housing at the scale that is needed; and restrictive land use policy.
As a state, we need to act with urgency to address the structural issues which have allowed this housing crisis to take hold and persist. Fortunately, we are seeing a new understanding of these issues and actions to address them. For the first time in my memory, the governor, the legislature and municipal leaders across Rhode Island are singing the same song as philanthropic leaders, business leaders and advocates, even if it’s still not quite in tune.
The Taunton Avenue Collaborative – the proposed apartment community that will transform a blighted and vacant stretch of property – hits all three key challenges. And it’s exactly the kind of project that puts in practice specific recommendations from the Rhode Island Foundation’s report.
This project is the result of an unprecedented partnership between four of the state’s most respected and impactful nonprofits − ONE Neighborhood Builders, Crossroads RI, Foster Forward, and Family Service of RI. Working together, we’ll create 160 new affordable apartments for individuals and families, including 65 that will be set aside as permanent supportive housing with on-site wraparound services. The remaining apartments will be affordable for low- to moderate-income households, individuals earning between $40,000 and $80,000.
There are meaningful efforts already underway and proposals under consideration. House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi’s recent package of housing proposals clears red tape and creates the kind of market conditions that incentivize the swift development of housing that is affordable for Rhode Islanders at all income levels. And Gov. Dan McKee has wisely proposed funding to adequately staff and resource the state’s Housing Department.
To be fully effective, though, those policy reforms need to be complemented with meaningful public investment in projects with clear and present public value.
With direct support from the state this budget year, we can accelerate development and welcome new residents as soon as 2025.
As we push towards development, the Taunton Avenue Collaborative will make full use of federal financing vehicles that will unlock over $20 million in private investment.
But we can only leverage this private investment once the public financing has been committed.
I am hopeful the legislature accurately weighs the public value of a project like the Taunton Avenue Collaborative. Our development promises to deliver a return on investment to taxpayers, not shareholders, in the form of reduced spending on social services, health care, and other interventions that are required when people lack safe, affordable, permanent housing.
Elected leaders’ focus on housing over the last several years has been so encouraging. Our leaders − from town and city halls to every floor of the State House − have put words into action. Now is not the time to slow down. The housing crisis is as urgent as ever and we need to show that we have the courage to invest in solutions and projects that will move the needle swiftly and create housing stability for the long term.
Jennifer Hawkins is president and executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders. More information at www.oneneighborhoodbuilders.org.