RI finally getting serious over housing

Posted 6/1/23

STORY OF THE WEEK: Quick quiz – what year was it when the head of the Providence Housing Authority said (via ProJo) that rents for some older Rhode Islanders are soaring, partly because of "a …

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RI finally getting serious over housing


STORY OF THE WEEK: Quick quiz – what year was it when the head of the Providence Housing Authority said (via ProJo) that rents for some older Rhode Islanders are soaring, partly because of "a housing crisis of great proportion"? If you guessed 1986, treat yourself to a coffee milk. Almost 40 years later, Rhode Island is showing signs of getting serious about the issue. The state is steering money into housing and bills meant to faciliate growth are making their way through the legislature. “I think that we’ve reached a tipping point, and I’m really optimistic that there’s going to be the resources to make measurable change,” Jennifer Hawkins, executive director of nonprofit developer One Neighborhood Builders, told me for an overview of where things stand in tackling the housing crisis. At the same time, higher interest rates threaten to chill growth and the Housing secretariat led by Stefan Pryor remains a year away from completing an interim plan for making progress statewide. Housing is one of those big issues – like reinventing the economy and improving public education – that Rhode Island has struggled with for decades. Amid glimmers of progress, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi frames the outlook this way: “We’re headed in the right direction, and I think that we just need to continue the work,” he said during a recent interview in his State House office. “It’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be fast, and the solutions will be multi-year.”

In a speech this week, Chief Justice John Roberts said the Supreme Court is working to address questions about disclosure and ethics, following recent controversies. During an interview on Political Roundtable, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a frequent critic of the rightward move of SCOTUS, offered this reaction: “[W]what Chief Justice Roberts said -- in that world, a whisper is a roar. And he basically said, ‘everything is not okay, we know we're gonna have to fix this. And we will.’ That's a very important turning point. And the court has the Judicial Conference, which runs the administrative side of the federal judiciary, the chief justice chairs the Judicial Conference, and the Judicial Conference has the ability to impose real ethics process on the Supreme Court. And that would come from inside the judicial branch -- that would be the best way to resolve this. And I think there are signs emerging that the Judicial Conference is ready to step up, because I think the other judges are sick of the nonsense at the Supreme Court.”

You only get one chance to make a first impression, or so the saying goes. In that respect, the two best-known CD1 candidates – Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos and former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg – would have a distinct advantage if the election was held today. None of the 15+ Democrats running in the race have gone on the air ahead of Memorial Day, and the name-recognition of many of them is rather limited even as they pursue retail politics at parades, festivals and the like. But the air war looms ahead, and field work will also be vital, as part of a100-day scramble until the all-important Sept. 5 primary. In related news, Nick Marroletti has signed on as campaign manager for Don Carlson’s campaign. Marroletti, who got his start as an organizer for Hillary Clinton in Iowa, was most recently deputy national organizing director in 2022 for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, where he helped implement spending in battlefield districts.

U.S. Rep. David Cicilline last week gave his last floor speech in the U.S. House, as he prepares to step down and take over the leadership of the Rhode Island Foundation on June 1. While Cicilline’s attempt to climb higher in House leadership didn’t pan out, and efforts to reel in big tech remain unfinished,

he’s leaving on his own terms, for a role that will place him at the center of civic life in Rhode Island. That’s a long way from how Cicilline felt compelled to apologize in 2012 for mischaracterizing Providence’s financial condition around the end of his time as mayor.

A poll out this week by NPR, PBS NewsHour, and Marist – amid the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas -- finds that 6 in 10 Americans believe controlling gun violence is more important than protecting gun rights. This is a shift, reflecting changing attitudes among Democrats and independents.

One year after Rhode Island legalized adult-use marijuana, advocates say more needs to be done to extend the benefits of legalization to those hurt by the war on drugs. As I reported last year, “A national report released in 2016 by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch found that Black Rhode Islanders were arrested for drug possession at almost three times the rate for whites -- a higher percentage than the national average.” And there were ample doubts then that Rhode Island’s social equity plan would live up to its billing.

Historian Matthew Dallek has a new book entitled, “Birchers: How The John Birch Society Radicalized The American Right.” “I argue that the Birchers helped forge an alternative political tradition on the far right and that the core ideas were an anti-establishment, apocalyptic, more violent mode of politics,” Dallek said in an interview with Terry Gross. “They were quite early to a set of issues that would become known as the culture wars.” That’s why it’s worth knowing that Robert Stoddard, a former part of the management of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette (now owned by Gannettt), was among the founders of the John Birch Society in 1958.

– a mix of views from various Rhode Islanders.

State Rep. JUSTINE CALDWELL (D-East Greenwich):
“One thing I love about Rhode Island is that it’s a state that feels like one community. As a community, we strive to provide for the basic needs of our children. One need we’re not meeting well enough is feeding our children when they go to school. Too many children are going hungry because their families can’t afford to buy school lunches. Too many children are eating food at school that doesn’t meet their nutritional needs. During school days, we want our children to be at their best, and human beings are not at their best when they’re hungry or eating low-quality food. Public education is supposed to be free, and eating is not an extracurricular activity. Our kids should have a right to access healthy, nutritious food for free.”

State Rep. JON BRIEN
(I-Woonsocket), the only independent in the General Assembly: “I fully understand what it is like for the man atop our beautiful Statehouse, but my second tour of duty in the House of Representatives is not nearly as lonely. It was heartwarming to be welcomed back in such a sincere way by my former colleagues who have remained in the chamber. They and I think many others have come to expect me to be an outspoken and principled leader. They are not wrong, as that hasn't changed, but I have. I was elected to do the right thing, not to serve a party or collective ideology. Unfortunately, the Republicans are mostly ignored and the Democrats exist mostly as part of a hive mind. It's extremely liberating to be able to vote your conscience and your heart, I wish more representatives would do so and I think a little independence would go a long way in making our state so much better. In the meantime, as leader of the Independent caucus, I will continue to seek new members and the caucus will welcome them with open arms.” 

PAIGE CLAUSIUS-PARKS, executive director of RI KIDS COUNT:
“The 2023 Rhode Island KIDS COUNT Factbook allows us to take stock of how Rhode Island effectively supports our children’s development and where we need to focus increased attention and efforts. Unacceptable gaps continue to exist between children of color and white children in nearly every Factbook indicator. We must eliminate these racial disparities if we want all of Rhode Island to prosper. The state budget must reflect the needs of our increasingly diverse child and youth population and include important, cost-effective investments in child care, RI Pre-K, Head Start and Early Head Start, First Connections, RI Works, healthy school meals, mental health professionals in schools, support for Multilingual Learners, out-of-school-time programs, continuous health coverage for low-income children, and supports and services for foster youth. We call on our General Assembly members to put kids first as they enter state budget negotiations. Please see the Rhode Island KIDS COUNT budget priorities on how we can do so with equity.”

DANIEL DENVIR, part of the advocacy group Reclaim RI:
“Rhode Island is on the brink of making housing history by establishing the nation’s first state-level mixed-income public housing developer, thanks to a ton of intensive grassroots organizing and the political support of elected officials Rep. June Speakman and Speaker Joseph Shekarchi. The private sector could not build enough homes when interest rates were at historic lows. They will not solve this housing crisis now that interest rates are rising. Middle-class people are shut out of homeownership and struggle to keep up with the rent or find an apartment. The situation for poor and working-class Rhode Islanders is absolutely terrible: tenants like those we are organizing, who rent from slumlord Pioneer Investments, pay sky-high rents to live with the fear of eviction in rodent-infested units that give their children lead poisoning. This is a nationwide problem, but Rhode Island is the very last in housing production per capita among the states. The public sector -- specifically, the state Department of Housing partnering with local public housing authorities -- must step in to directly address this crisis by just building the homes we need -- all while generating good union construction jobs and building green to cut emissions. Rhode Island is the perfect laboratory for a solution that I believe will soon sweep the nation.

Martin Scorsese’s adaption of “Killers of the Flower Moon” – about murders targeting the Osage people in Oklahoma in the 1920s – got a nine-minute stanning ovation at Cannes.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org

Donnis, politics, housing


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