Over a month into new job, R.I. housing secretary offers slate of policy ideas
Rhode Island’s new Housing Secretary Stefan I. Pryor unveiled his ideas for resolving the state’s housing crisis Tuesday before the House Special Commission to Study the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act.
“These ideas are illustrative,” said Pryor, the former Rhode Island Commerce secretary who has been in the job for over a month.
“We in the Housing Department are not yet proposing these ideas. If we want to come from behind, we need to bring tools.”
Pryor took over on February 6 following the ouster of his predecessor Joshua Saal who failed to meet a legislated deadline to file a report and was accused of a lack of transparency in his department administration. He was in the position for about seven months before being forced out.
Saal has remained on board as a paid consultant to help with the operational and leadership transition through April.Pryor Briefing March 21
Pryor was transparent in his own goals for the Department of Housing, which he divided into three key topics for the committee — focused on three areas of policy: supply, homelessness, and the organization of the nascent Department of Housing. He also detailed the need for more staff.
“I wanted to put the problem in front of us,” he told the commission, chaired by Democratic Rep. June Speakman of Bristol. “If we look back on the last decade, we are not doing well on housing production.”
According to data presented by the housing secretary, Rhode Island ranks 38th in the nation when it comes to housing production, with a net of 19 units per 1,000 residents produced between 2012 and 2021. Only Connecticut and Maine have produced less in New England.
The age of the state’s housing reflects that, with 80% of housing structures in Rhode Island built before 1980.
Pryor added that most of the state’s 150,000 housing cost burdened people are concentrated in the urban core, with other pockets around Woonsocket, Middletown, Narragansett, and Block Island.
“It’s important that we focus on affordability,” he said, adding that a large part of the issue comes from the state’s aging housing supply. He also told the committee that low-income households, defined as those 30% or less of the Area Median Income ($99,300 for a family of four), are 34% of the population but only 24% of the units were affordably priced for them.
Pryor added that Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi’s recent 14-bill housing package is a project he’s excited about and feels would pay dividends down the line.
He also encouraged the state to consider a local Low Income Housing Tax Credit program to encourage development of such units. According to Pryor, Rhode Island and New Hampshire are the only states in New England without such a program.
“It would be a real boost to our production pipeline,” he said.
Pryor focused on the creation of emergency housing in order to deal with the homelessness crisis while looking to more permanent solutions.
“We need to stand up more shelters and centers en route to more permanent solutions,” he said.
To this end, he said the department is working on an inventory of state and municipally owned properties that could potentially be used to house people.
Melina Lodge, executive director of the Housing Network of Rhode Island, questioned its effectiveness when there are municipalities that have historically resisted affordable housing projects.
“It’s fine for us to have a list,” she said. “But it only gets us so far.”
Pryor agreed, adding that efforts to help tenants fight evictions and housing discrimination need to be taken into account as well. He also proposed looking into improving enforcement of existing housing law, a drum beat regularly by renter advocate groups.
‘Tiny but emerging as mighty’
Increasing the Department of Housing’s staff from its current 17 members was a priority for Pryor. He wants to create five sections within the department to deal with housing support for individuals and families, housing development, community development, engagement, and sustainability, policy and planning, and operations support.
“We have a very thin team currently at the minuscule Housing Department,” he said. “We are tiny but emerging as mighty.”
Pryor added that he planned to discuss with staff how many new full-timers should be added to the Department.
United Way of Rhode Island President and CEO Cortney Nicolato said she also wanted the Department of Housing to focus on collecting, analyzing, and publishing data for public examination.
“I think about all the strategies and levers you are talking about,” Nicolato said. “I keep going back to this. How do we assess its impact?”
She added that a public dashboard with relevant housing data would create awareness among Rhode Islanders of the housing crisis.
“How can we make that a reality?” she asked. “I don’t think our community fully appreciates the crisis in which we are in and I know data plays a critical role.”
“We need to have a function internal to our department to hold ourselves accountable to hold external contractors accountable, and to ever evolve our policy,” Pryor replied.