The RI House filed 14 bills to address the housing crisis — what's in them?

By Ethan Hartley
Posted 3/15/23

Will a package of 14 different bills put forth by House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi earlier this month to address Rhode Island’s housing shortage accomplish that mission, fall short, or do something in between?

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The RI House filed 14 bills to address the housing crisis — what's in them?

Posted

Will a package of 14 different bills put forth by House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi earlier this month to address Rhode Island’s housing shortage accomplish that mission, fall short, or do something in between?

Realistically speaking, it’s too early to tell. Many of the most potentially consequential bills — should they receive an accompanying piece of Senate legislation and get a signature from Governor McKee this session — wouldn’t go into effect until the first day of 2024. Regardless, it is still worth examining the contents of these bills, as they could have consequences for all Rhode Island municipalities.

Included within the package are bills that intend to streamline the development process to make it less difficult and time consuming for prospective developers, that would make certain types of proposed housing allowed by-right rather than requiring approval of local officials, and one that would eliminate a housing appeals board that has taken more than a year and half, on average, to deliberate its cases.

Rep. June Speakman (D-Bristol, Warren), who chaired one of the two commissions that had been charged for the past two years with examining the existing housing regulations utilized in Rhode Island, clarified in a recent interview that the work is far from done.

“These bills don’t put money into peoples’ hands for rent,” she said. “But it tries to unclog some of the procedural things that are keeping units from being built. That should help everybody.”

Her committee, the Special Legislative Commission to Study the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act, along with the Special Legislative Commission to Study the Entire Area of Land Use, Preservation, Development, Housing, Environment and Regulation, are both slated to meet for another two years as they continue to look at ways in which the state’s housing strategies are not functioning adequately, or can be improved.

Cutting some red tape
If you ask Speaker Shekarchi, he agrees that boosting housing production of all types is the underlying goal of the 14 bills.

“We are dead last in the country in building permits. Dead last. That’s not a good place to be,” he said. “We have to stimulate more production in every level of housing.”

The proposed bills attempt to do so in a few key ways.

The focus of multiple bills in the package, such as H-6081 (introduced by Shekarchi), H-6061 (introduced by Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert E. Craven, D-Dist. 32, North Kingstown), and H-6059 (also introduced by Rep. Craven), are to clarify and streamline the approval process that developers must go through when proposing a new development, whether through inclusionary zoning incentives or the Comprehensive Permit application.

A particularly salient example for Warren residents can be seen in Bill 6081, which would eliminate one of the steps required for developments that are submitted under the state’s Comprehensive Permit application — which provides certain relief from local zoning ordinances for projects that set aside a minimum of 25% of the units as affordable. That type of application was just utilized by a developer seeking to build apartments in the town’s historic waterfront district, which was ultimately denied.

If the bill is passed as written, developers applying under the Comprehensive Permit would only need to go through a pre-application process, a preliminary approval, and a final approval, and would no longer be subject the “Master Plan” portion of the process.

This would have a couple of implications. For the public, it would eliminate one public meeting that usually occurs at Master Plan, when a more generalized overview of the project is put forth. A public hearing, where public comments and concerns would be heard, would still be required at the preliminary approval step, when more detailed features of the proposed project are unveiled (things like exterior building aesthetics).

Kate Michaud, Warren’s former Town Planner and now its Town Manager, said that while she was in favor of the package of bills, removing Master Plan could have an impact on developers, as well as the public.

“It’s one less chance for the public to weigh in. It also puts more burden on the developer to get more details before preliminary,” she said, listing examples such as paying for more in-depth architectural and engineering drawings to present at the meeting. “The developer would have to get a lot more done before getting any approvals.”

Shekarchi said that eliminating one step in the process should reduce the amount of time required for a developer to dedicate to a project, leading to more completed projects, while still leaving the approval authority in the hands of the local planning board.

“I don’t want the ancient permitting process to discourage people from even trying [to propose a development],” he said “There’s nothing in the bills that substitutes the judgment of the local decision makers to say yes or no to any project they want. But they have to do so with concrete reasons on a speedier timetable.”

Creation of certain housing by-right
Currently, if you want to convert a garage, basement or build an extension of your property into an accessory dwelling unit (ADU), you would need to go before a public hearing at your local zoning board in order to get the process started.

But if Rep. Speakman’s bill (H-6082) is passed, those looking to build an ADU would no longer require that permission, so long as the lot is more than 20,000 square feet or, if smaller than that, the unit is less than 900 square feet and doesn’t expand beyond the existing footprint of the house. All other requirements, such as receiving a building permit and satisfying safety and environmental regulations, would remain in place.

One important feature of the bill, Speakman mentioned, was that the legislation would prevent ADUs from being created to be used as short-term rentals.

Another bill, H-6090 (sponsored by Special Legislation Committee Chairwoman Karen Alzate, D-Dist. 60, Pawtucket, Central Falls), would allow for the adaptive re-use of existing commercial properties into housing developments.

The bill would enable those types of developments to be done by-right, not requiring zoning changes that normally would slow such a project down significantly, and could apply to a number of different types of structures, from factories (like the Tourister building in Warren or the Robin Rug factory in Bristol), to hospitals, schools, malls, hospitals, or churches.

Michaud said she was a supporter of the adaptive re-use idea, but foresaw some potential difficulties with the concept.

“I think adaptive re-use is a great strategy, but complicated from the financing side of things,” she said. “It’s my understanding that it’s more costly to retro-fit those buildings than it is to build a new property, particularly if it involves the renovation of a historic property.”

For Speakman, opening up the opportunity for those projects is the important focus at the current moment.

“Buildings standing vacant when we have a housing crisis is crazy,” she said. “Let’s get some adaptive units and put some people in there. They can be affordable or otherwise, but we need to build some housing.”

Changes to appeals, Comprehensive Plan requirements
One other strategy of note is the proposed disbanding of the State Housing Appeals Board (SHAB), which currently handles appeals filed by developers who feel as though their project was wrongly denied by a municipality.

Bills H-6083 and H-6060 would eliminate the SHAB and shift all development appeals to the Superior Court, creating a specific housing appeals court and calendar to organize and handle those cases more efficiently.

Shekarchi said that the approach was a common sense measure, saying that 90% of all SHAB cases wind up in Superior Court when the municipality appeals their decisions anyways. “It’s another year of waste,” he said.

According to Michaud, it’s actually more like a year and a half of waste. She said the average time for a SHAB deliberation and decision is 586 days.

Another procedural bill that would have potentially impacted the situation in Warren recently can be found in H-6085 (sponsored by Rep. Stephen M. Casey, D-Dist. 50, Woonsocket), which would require municipalities to update their Comprehensive Plans every 10 years. Additionally, it would render any housing denials by municipalities based on Comprehensive Plans older than 12 years old invalid. Warren hasn’t updated its Comprehensive Plan since 2003, and its newest version is still in the midst of being crafted. Michaud said the Town was hopeful to have that update before public hearings by the summer.

Regarding this piece of legislation, Michaud had another thought regarding possible issues with its implementation.

“Statewide there are multiple municipalities without planners,” she said. “The closest [higher education] program, I believe, is at Tufts…There’s just not enough planners. In order to affect significant changes in the way the planning process works, we need planners. It’s not even a matter of pay at this point, the people just don’t exist. They’re not here to do this work.”

Shekarchi anticipated hearing this concern, and said that there are “plenty of grants” available to assist communities in need of funding in order to develop strategic comprehensive plans.

What about affordability?
While many of the bills focus on creating more housing in general, the term “affordable housing” is only mentioned in the summary of two of the 14 bills outlined in a press release publicizing their introduction into the House. One of those is Speakman’s bill on ADUs, but nothing in that bill mandates that any ADUs created shall be restricted as affordable housing.

Likewise, none of the bills proposed would alter any of the existing legislation that guides the state’s approach to creating specifically affordable housing, and one of the bills (H-6084), which would incentivize developers who build affordable housing along state transit hubs, fails to specify what those incentives are, or how exactly they will be doled out.

In bills that do mention affordable housing, they often reference existing affordable housing statutes, which define an “affordable” rental property as one where a year of rent and utilities does not exceed 30% of the gross income for individuals or families making 80% of the area median income (which is around $77,000 for a family of four in Bristol County, as of 2022 HUD data).

One bill (H-6058, sponsored by Finance Committee Chairman Marvin L. Abney, D-Dist. 73, Newport, Middletown) proposes to guarantee a 30% density bonus to developers above local zoning restrictions and provide other “incentives” paid by the municipality to make up for the difference between market-rate units and affordable units for developments that include a minimum of 10% of total units as affordable, but leaves in a provision where developers can opt for payments in-lieu-of actually creating affordable units.

No bill proposes to change the oft-discussed “mandate” for all Rhode Island communities to reach 10% of total housing stock as deed-restricted, affordable housing. However, one bill that was not a part of the package that has been brought forth by Senator Walter Felag Jr. (D-Warren, Bristol) seeks to change the way that affordable housing is counted in each community, including things like Section 8 housing.

Rep. Speakman said that changing the 10% affordable housing mandate was met with a mixed reaction in the House.

“It’s complicated,” she said. “It doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it this year. I personally am researching ways to count naturally-occurring affordable housing units (NOAHs). Everyone says Warren is a town full of NOAHs. Well, how do you know that? You need a rental registry, which we don’t have, and you need to get in there and ask people what they’re paying and ask landlords what they’re charging. I would like to see the Town of Warren get credit for these units…But this is not as easy a problem as it seems.”

Speaker Shekarchi, meanwhile, argued that empowering the private sector to create more housing will naturally result in the construction of more affordable units, and that the lessening of the procedural burden will also assist nonprofit housing groups in building more developments that focus primarily on the creation affordable units versus making a profit.

“I don’t think it’s ‘either or’, I think you have to do both,” he said. “Part of this package will encourage the private sector to develop more, but it will also help the public sector as well. It has to be all hands on deck.”

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