ARPA FUNDS: SURVEY RESULTS
It comes as no surprise that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have only exacerbated the need for stronger affordable housing policies. With extremely low income renter households making up 25% of all renter households in America, and 70% of those households being severely cost burdened (spending more than half of their incomes on rent and utilities) (NLIHC, 2021), it is time for bold policies that address housing needs. In March, President Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan Act [KL1] (ARPA), an economic stimulus bill providing an extraordinary opportunity for federal investment to help states and localities respond to the coronavirus public health emergency and help redress its devastating economic effects. Click here for a breakdown of the distribution of Rhode Island’s ARPA funds.
The Rhode Island Foundation created the Make It Happen Steering Committee to develop recommendations to state leaders on how to spend the $1.1 billion allocated to Rhode Island in State and Local Fiscal Recovery ARPA funds. Homes RI, along with our partners, put together a list of recommendations of strategies to equitably increase access to safe, healthy, affordable homes using those funds. Of those strategies, our coalition designated nine priorities to address housing stability, affordability, and health equity in housing. With feedback from our partners, we will be putting forward more defined recommendations with specific dollar amounts.
Click here for the full list of recommendations.
Remove barriers and promote stability
In the first two weeks of June 2021, Rhode Island courts were scheduled to hear nearly 400 eviction cases. Evictions and displacement are traumatic experiences that negatively impact individual and public health and wellbeing. Women and children, especially women of color and particularly Black women, are disproportionately affected by eviction (Desmond, 2014). Investing in programs to prevent eviction and displacement will make a difference in preventing and ending homelessness. Additionally, due to chronic underfunding, 8.2 million households across the country that meet the requirements for housing vouchers cannot get one (Shelterforce, 2021). Homes RI top priorities in addressing these concerns are:
1. Create a statewide pre-filing eviction diversion program with funding for mediation and legal services for tenants, housing counseling, rental assistance to cure debts, and support for small landlords to navigate rental assistance.
2. Establish a permanent statewide emergency rent and utility assistance fund to help low and moderate income families with short-term crises (that are not necessarily COVID related) remain stably housed.
3. Increase funding for housing vouchers and rental subsidy to bridge the gap in rental affordability for the lowest income households.
Investments in Affordable Housing and Community Development
The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates there is a shortage of 19,684 affordable and available rental homes to households with incomes at or below 50% Area Median Income (the median family income in the metropolitan or nonmetropolitan area) and a shortage of 21,678 for extremely low-income households, below 30% AMI (NLIHC, 2021). Additionally, there is a need for housing for households at 80–100% of AMI. The median home price in Rhode Island reached a record high of $385,000 in June of this year (RI Association of Realtors, 2021). Only six Rhode Island cities and towns meet the state’s current goal of providing a minimum of 10% affordable (defined as households at or below 80% AMI) homes as part of their year round housing stock (HousingWorks RI, 2020).
We know that in order to resolve our housing shortage we need to build. We need to invest in strategies that make acquiring land and existing structures more feasible, especially for nonprofit community developers, incentivize development and support homeownership, particularly for historically excluded racial and ethnic groups. The strategies below represent opportunities to invest these once in a generation resources to build stronger neighborhoods and communities.
1. Invest in the state’s newly created Housing Production Fund to develop and preserve affordable homes, targeting investments to households below 50% AMI.
2. Establish a fund to support acquiring land and existing property (including multi-family housing, commercial buildings and abandoned and foreclosed properties) for housing development.
3. Finance a fund to help developers convert existing commercial, non-residential properties into long-term affordable and mixed-income residential housing to increase housing stock.
Healthy Homes and Infrastructure
Finally, negative health impacts in communities are linked to aging and substandard quality housing stock and environmental toxins are another result of residential segregation and discriminatory practices. Although the percentage of children with higher blood levels of lead have been steadily declining, low income children are still at a higher risk for poisoning. In 2020, 3% of children screened had elevated levels of lead present in their bloodstream (RIKidsCount, 2021). Lead poisoning attacks the brain and has significant effects on performance in school in early childhood education.
In addition to lead hazards, older homes have many maintenance expenses such as higher energy costs due to inefficient and outdated electrical, heating, and ventilation systems. Too often, repairs are too expensive for property owners and result in residents living in unsafe conditions. In addition, insufficient or aging water and sewer infrastructure is a barrier to housing development. Municipalities must have resources to make the upgrades they need to have vibrant, thriving businesses and residential areas. The following recommendations are strategies that will address long-term effects on community health and investments in programs that promote healthy housing and public infrastructure.
1. Invest in a statewide home repair fund for low and moderate income households and small landlords to support healthy housing and aging-in-place.
2. Invest in Rhode Island’s drinking water infrastructure, prioritizing replacement of residential lead service lines.
3. Establish a statewide rental registry program to ensure that rental homes meet suitable health and safety standards.
Bold policies are required to improve and stabilize access, affordability, and health of housing in Rhode Island. While there are other additional policies decision-makers should consider, including a down-payment assistance plan for BIPOC, incentivizing the construction of accessory dwellings, and free Wi-Fi, the above strategies have been identified as priorities that will address the devastating effects of coronavirus and lay the foundation for ongoing investments in housing. With funds from ARPA, our state has an incredible opportunity to begin addressing the needs of renters, especially those of low income households, and provide safe, decent, affordable housing to all residents.