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It’s time to solve Rhode Island’s housing crisis. Here’s how.

Tyler Jackman


Being a soon-to-be RIC graduate, one would assume my mind would be fixated on my next career opportunity or ambitious projects. Instead, a singular focus has developed in me; “Where will I live?”

No one can disagree that the state of housing in Rhode Island is bleak. The Ocean State ranks dead last in housing construction in the United States, faces soaring rent prices with no rent caps (allowing landlords to choose prices at whim,) and struggles with a dismaying 70% increase in homelessness

There’s no blanket cause of the crisis we find ourselves in. Inflation, high rates of people moving to Rhode Island, and a low inventory of available housing all play roles in the struggle of today, but no invisible hand blocks progress towards solving this crisis more than zoning laws.

Image by scottmontreal via Flickr licensed under Creative Commons

Zoning laws are, in essence, local ordinances that dictate what type of developments may be built where. One area may be zoned for factories and businesses, while others may be zoned for certain types of housing only. Therein lies the issue of zoning; antiquated regulations throughout all of Rhode Island create layers of red tape that prevent unique approaches to development. To fix our housing crisis, it’s time to overhaul the way we approach zoning.

In American cities, more than 75% of residential land is zoned exclusively for private single-family homes. This is not only outdated for our current era, but laughably ridiculous at face value alone. Simply put, densely populated land cannot sustain regulations that prevent the development of more affordable multi-family housing. Let’s not forget, of course, that Rhode Island is the second most densely populated state in the nation.

Rhode Island’s state Senate and House has worked to streamline processes regarding development permits, but this does not solve the issue of zoning laws preventing the development of affordable housing as a whole. Some local representatives, such as Providence City Councilman Miguel Sanchez, have sought to tackle the issue themselves, working to rezone their districts to allow two-family homes and moderate-density development.

Just like the birth of the housing crisis, working to repair it doesn’t carry one singular solution. However, ushering in mixed zoning and eliminating restrictions on development is the most immediate solution to stave off the bleeding. Research shows that upzoning, or allowing the use of more densely built housing units, does help control runaway rent and facilitate development. 

The one struggle with upzoning, however, is relying on private developers to accelerate development of low to middle income housing units. In an age where private investment firms seek to purchase property en masse, said firms have little incentive to do anything but maximize profit margins. In order to solve the housing crisis, upzoning must be done in tandem with a new age of public housing.

Public housing thrived during the New Deal era of the 1930’s-40’s, but has since stagnated into quagmires of waiting lists and partially subsidized housing. There is nothing, however, preventing local lawmakers from pushing reforms to allow them to build housing when developers won’t. By building affordable housing subsidized off both local funds and increased rents paid by affluent tenants, local governments can accelerate their own housing boom without waiting for action from the federal government or wading through bureaucratic processes. 

Building public housing in tandem with zoning deregulation stands to benefit more than just the housing market. Through pursuing this method, governments can fill swathes of construction jobs and accelerate the market. Along with this, effort can be put in to build zero emission homes, reducing carbon outputs in an age where housing is responsible for a large portion of emissions in the country.

In order to solve the housing crisis, we need to recognize that what we’ve been doing is simply failing. It’s not just failing our local economy, but it’s failing the prospective homeowners of Rhode Island who will look elsewhere for more affordable housing. A wholly unique and radical approach is necessary, and deregulating bureaucratic red tape, dismantling oppressive zoning laws and accelerating public housing are the necessary steps we need to take. Without this, we may just see the next generation of Rhode Islanders seek prosperity elsewhere.


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