Can we restart the economy with a commitment to housing?
Three months ago, Rhode Island’s economy was as strong as it’s been in nearly 30 years. Unemployment was low, businesses were hiring. Today, our economy has been stopped in its tracks by the health crisis.
While the economy was growing, we were already facing a housing crisis. Before COVID-19, 35 percent of Rhode Island families were spending more than 30 percent of their income on rents and mortgages. With a median household income of about $63,000, families earning less than $70,000 can’t afford to buy a home in 35 of the state’s 39 cities and towns.
Our families are priced out of the housing market, in part, because Rhode Island has a dire lack of housing stock.
Providence’s rental market, for example, has a 2 percent vacancy rate.
Housing is infrastructure that holds up everything else in our lives. In normal times, a housing crisis is both a drag on the economy and a glaring signal that we have a long way to go to address equity. But during a pandemic, the lack of housing is a direct threat to public health, one that creates a Grand Canyon-sized gap between communities.
Studies show that reasonable access to housing dramatically reduces health-care costs. The health crisis has further demonstrated just how critical it is to have a home. When the simple act of staying at home is prescribed as preventative medicine by our elected leaders, we all can agree how important housing is for all.
Beyond health care, homes are now classrooms. Without adequate housing stock and investments that ensure lower income Rhode Islanders can maintain housing, we will put more stress on students and undo the progress we’ve made to reform and improve education under Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green’s leadership.
Perhaps most urgently, though, we need to get people back to work so that families living one paycheck away from a personal housing crisis aren’t forced to seek emergency shelter or put their family’s health at risk by temporarily living at a friend’s or family member’s house. Making a public commitment to build more housing will create good-paying Rhode Island jobs and propel our state toward a recovery.
There’s a proposal on the table to help get us there. In January, Gov. Gina Raimondo proposed a $25-million housing bond and a new permanent funding stream for housing. I recognize that this will be a tough budget year. But we’ve seen time and again in our state what can happen when we support an economy with investments in infrastructure. We also know too well what happens when we answer challenging economic times with austerity and budget cuts.
I grew up in Pawtucket, just down the street from Arbeka Webbing. Every Pawtucket kid of the 1980s remembers Industrial Highway bursting with energy and the smokestacks on full throttle. We also remember what it did to our neighborhood when those mills and factories closed, one by one, taking our neighbors’ jobs with them. The state invested very little back then in the infrastructure to rebuild the economy and get families back to work, and it took an entire generation to dig out.
United Way of Rhode Island has been proud to work with the Rhode Island Foundation to create the COVID-19 Response Fund, which has raised more than $8.3 million for the state’s emergency response. That is important work, but it can only be temporary. The state’s economy cannot run for long periods of time on philanthropy. We need to invest to get people back to work.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Governor Raimondo have shown that second only to the health and safety of Rhode Island, building a secure and resilient economy for every Rhode Islander is the most important job they have.
Public investments in housing provide a proven path to both.
By: Cortney Nicolato, President and CEO, United Way of Rhode Island
Originally published in The Providence Journal on May 18, 2020, as “My Turn: Cortney Nicolato: Can we restart the economy with a commitment to housing?”