United Way of Rhode Island, housing advocates, business leaders urge state leaders and budget makers to protect proposed housing investments
As Rhode Island prepares to enter into the first phase of restarting its economy, community development, health, and housing executives are urging state leaders to make housing a key part of the state’s economic recovery. United Way of Rhode Island President and CEO Cortney Nicolato headlined a digital press conference this morning that specifically called on legislators and members of the administration to protect proposed housing investments in the state’s FY21 budget.
The COVID-19 crisis has caused nearly 200,000 unemployment claims and has taken an incredible toll on the state economy and state revenues. The proposed housing investments outlined in the Governor’s State of the State earlier this year are more important than ever. New housing construction and revitalization projects will create good-paying construction jobs and increase housing stock across Rhode Island so more people can access safe, affordable housing. During the COVID pandemic, the correlation between housing and healthcare has only been heightened.
“The housing proposal Governor Raimondo introduced in her State of the State earlier this year is a down payment on a healthier future and a smart investment that will get Rhode Islanders back to work,” said United Way of Rhode Island President and CEO Cortney Nicolato. “COVID has created a significant budget challenge. But we can’t cut our way to a recovery, nor can we delay necessary investments. COVID-19 has stopped our economy in its tracks. We need to rebuild with a long-term vision. There is broad agreement that we need more housing in Rhode Island and that public investment is necessary. When the House and Senate return to work to complete the budget, they can set Rhode Island on a path to recovery by protecting proposed funding for housing.”
Even before COVID shut much of the state’s economy down, Rhode Island was facing a housing crisis years in the making. At last count, the state’s largest city, Providence, had a two percent rental vacancy rate which inflates rents and provides low- and middle-income Rhode Islanders with less flexibility. The state’s lack of housing stock has made it nearly impossible for a family making $70,000 or less to afford to buy a home in most parts of Rhode Island. Most urgently, more than 35 percent of Rhode Island households are cost-burdened, meaning they are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. This leaves families ill-equipped to handle a personal health or employment crisis like those that have been caused by COVID.
Investments in housing construction will create jobs and provide economic security for men and women who work in the building trades. Additionally, research shows that investments in housing significantly reduce health care costs. During a pandemic, individuals and families need safe shelter to stay healthy. Further, the state’s economy cannot begin to recover if workers, customers, and providers are unable to stay healthy.
“Lack of safe, affordable housing is a near guarantee of poor health outcomes. The effects are wide-reaching and long lasting, including increased utilization of healthcare services, which leads to greater healthcare costs,” said Michele Lederberg, Executive Vice President of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island and Board Chair of United Way of Rhode Island. “As we work to address the public health challenges exacerbated by COVID-19, and as we begin to reopen Rhode Island’s economy, we can’t lose sight of housing as a health factor and an economic factor. Now is the time to make sustained investments in housing – the returns will far exceed the investments.”
In recent weeks, the state has announced various efforts to mitigate the crisis and provide individuals and families with short-term relief. These measures include a halt on all evictions, prohibitions against utility shut offs, public-private partnerships with local hotels to provide individuals and families experiencing homelessness with safe access to shelter, and redirected federal funding to provide housing assistance. These measures are necessary, but are inadequate on their own to re-spark Rhode Island’s economy.
“We are in the middle of a kind of crisis that no one among us has ever seen. Even today, nearly two months into an era of social distancing and stay at home orders, it feels like we’re responding to new parts of this crisis everyday. But the reality is we need to be shifting to recovery and resiliency,” said Crossroads RI President and CEO Karen Santilli. “To rebuild our economy, we need to invest in housing. There is broad agreement on that. And it’s up to the legislature to determine the best path to get there. Now is not the time to get lost in the weeds. Passing a budget without support for housing will put our economic recovery and healthy resiliency at risk.”
“HousingWorks RI envisions a state in which all communities embrace a variety of housing choices–close to transit or job hubs, and near existing neighborhood or village centers. Affordability should play a key role in housing creation throughout our state,” said HousingWorks RI Director Brenda Clement. “Our recovery from COVID – both physically and economically – depends on our ability to ensure that every individual and family can access housing. To do that, we need a permanent line item for housing. I’m proud to stand with advocates and business leaders to urge state leaders to protect funding for housing.”
The panelists stressed that despite ongoing debate on the best methodology, there is broad support among business and civic leaders for a sustained and permanent funding stream for housing. The speakers urged state leaders to consider all options and warned against the risks of delaying the establishment of a funding stream for housing.