Innovation Ecosystem

Calculated housing shortfalls

A new season of homelessness is rapidly descending on RI, but the McKee administration appears to be playing games with its alleged investments

Photo by Richard Asinof/file photo

Stefan Pryor and Gov. Dan McKee talk housing at a news conference in February, introducing Pryor as the new Secretary of Housing in February.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 9/25/23
The McKee administration and Housing Secretary Pryor have left community agencies in the dark when it comes to investments in programs to provide housing services to their clients, in an unnecessary game of brinkmanship.
How will Rhode Island Foundation President David Cicilline respond to the current failure by the McKee administration to spend what was allocated in the budget for housing investments? Will Speaker Shekarchi and Senate President Ruggerio take the Governor and Secretary Pryor to task and speak out in public? Is the Housing Department contracting with public relations consultants to manage the news flow around housing issues? Which Rhode Island media outlet will pick up the ConvergenceRI story about the pending lack of information about future housing investments in advance of an expected announcement on Tuesday?
Driving back from the public information session hosted by OHIC about its report recommending a $45 million increase in Medicaid rates for providers in next year’s budget, ConvergenceRI saw a new homeless encampment across the street from the Department of Administration building with a sign that said, “This is home sweet home.”
The new encampment seemed to underscore the policy failures of the McKee administration to make timely investments in the infrastructure needs while not spending on legislative mandated programs, but being more than willing to invest in money for business consultants. What is wrong with this picture?

PROVIDENCE – Do you remember the 21st day of September? Warming rays from the late afternoon sun in a cornflower blue sky bathed the outdoor café in a painter’s light of positive vibrations.

A slight breeze rippled the umbrellas at the café’s tables. And, as if right on cue, a loud car stereo system blared out the classic Earth Wind and Fire song, “September.” A number of the café patrons begin to sing along with the chorus: “Ba-dee-ya, do you remember? Dancin’ in September, Ba-dee-ya, never was a cloudy day.”

The mood for housing advocates, however, was dark and somber, when they sat down on Sept. 21 to meet with Hannah Moore, top assistant for Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor, to try and pry out the state’s plans for pending awards of some $9.4 million in funds under the Consolidated Homeless Fund partnership, which are due to take effect in less than a week, beginning Oct. 1, 2023, through Sept. 30, 2024.

Here is what transpired at the meeting with Moore, according to one source. “Homeless providers met with Hannah Moore today, owing to the fact that multiple providers are owed hundreds of thousands of dollars, and current shelter contracts end in nine days.”

Moore, according to the source, “provided some assurances that there would not be a loss in ‘shelter capacity’ and that some contracts would be extended.”

The problem, according to a participant in the meeting with Moore, is that the agencies are at risk of a shortfall in cash flow and are worried that they may not be able to make payroll. The “excuse” given by Moore was that the Department of Housing was “short staffed” and there had been many systems, such as IT and billing, which had undergone changes.

Some of the providers who met with Moore shared with ConvergenceRI that they were skeptical of the reasons that she gave for the delays in announcing the funding awards, because such delays were part of a pattern that have occurred year after year.

The latest word from the Department of Housing is that providers will hear “something” on Tuesday, Sept. 26.

What is at stake?
The future state interventions around shelters for the “unhoused” population in the state are dependent upon those funds being distributed in a timely fashion. As one agency executive told ConvergenceRI, what is at stake is “whether there will be any additional expansion of shelter resources, and to what degree.”

Translated, with the arrival of the fall equinox on Saturday, Sept. 23, the state is plunging ahead into the next homeless season without proper preparation and funding, despite all the numerous ways that Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor has pumped up the volume when it came to promoting Gov. McKee administration's housing plans.

The most recent example was the meeting of the legislative Housing Commission chaired by State Rep. June Speakman, at which Pryor announced the funding of Abt Associates as the vendor “to support the development of statewide housing plans that will descibe key strategies and housing policy moving forward in the Ocean State.”

In a series of emails shared last week, agency directors said they were angry and frustrated about the current situation. Many are owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid invoices. As one agency director wrote: “We have a million dollars in unpaid invoices,” which the state had yet to pay. Another executive wrote: “The consensus seems to be that there is no notice of awards, we are all owed money, and are all gravely concerned.”

The potential of a looming federal government shutdown further complicates the situation. “We’re getting deeply concerned about timing and now with the potential of a government shutdown,” a third agency executive wrote. “I’m fearful of what happens when current [or outstanding invoices] lapse on 9/30 for programs and clients.”

The difficulty in finding answers
ConvergenceRI reached out to the Joseph Lindstrom, the communications spokesman for Housing Secretary Pryor, in an attempt to get some answers. No response was received, which is not surprising, in ConvergenceRI’s past experience with Lindstrom.

ConvergenceRI: What is the status of the CHF awards? Have the decisions been made? When will the awards be announced?
PRYOR: No answer.

ConvergenceRI: I have heard from sources that agencies involved in providing services regarding housing and homelessness are owed more than a million dollars in past invoices. Why have there been such delays in payments? How much is owed? Can you break down what is owed by months — 30 days, 60 days, 90 days or more?
PRYOR: No answer.

ConvergenceRI: In Kathy Gregg’s recent story in The Providence Journal, she detailed how there were unexpected budget surpluses because of the apparent failure to spend the money approved in the budget, and she asked specific questions that you [Joseph Lindstrom] answered. How are Gregg’s story and my inquiries connected? Please advise how they may be part of the same story -- the failure to pay invoices and the unexpected surplus in the budget?
PRYOR: No answer.

ConvergenceRI: What is the status of the contracts with Duffy and Shanley and with Mike Raia for public relations services for the Secretary of Housing ? Are they still operative? Have they been ended? How much money was paid to Raia for his consulting services? (Editor's Note: The question should have referred to Chris Raia, not Mike Raia; my apologies for the incorrect identification. Mike Raia runs his own communications firm and said he does not work with the Housing Secretary.)
PRYOR: No answer.

ConvergenceRI: Thanks for your prompt responses. I am on deadline. Can you provide me with answers before Friday at 5 pm?
PRYOR: No answer.

Bad behavior, bad press
The lack of accountability by the McKee administration and in particular, Housing Secretary Pryor – in the belief that they can ignore questions from the news media with impunity and without consequences – bespeaks of an attitude of arrogance.

When asked if intervention by either House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi or Senate President Dominick Ruggerio could make a difference regarding the pending housing awards, one community agency director said that it was doubtful, because the Governor was apparently not worried about legislative complaints. The only thing that the Governor seems to respond to, the agency executive continued, was “bad press.”

Reporter Kathy Gregg of The Providence Journal certainly provided some “bad press” for the Governor last week, when she detailed that the 2022-23 budget year ended with a larger surplus than anticipated.

“That may – or may not – be good news, given how much less the state actually spent on a long list of stated priorities than they budgeted for, from education to medical assistance to ‘homelessness infrastructure’ to highway improvements,” Gregg reported.

Gregg continued: Despite the big promises to address Rhode Island’s top-of-the-news housing – and homelessness – crisis, the "Housing & Community Development" arm of the state’s Executive Office of Commerce spent $76.5 million less than the $148.7 million in mostly federal dollars state legislators earmarked.

As Gregg detailed, the unspent funds in legislative earmarks included a big menu of housing needs: funds for the development of affordable housing, homelessness assistance, site acquisition, down payment assistance, workforce housing, an affordable housing predevelopment program, home repair and community revitalization, the statewide housing plan, and homelessness infrastructure.

When asked to explain the gap in unspent funds, Lindstrom told Gregg: “The short answer to your question is that there is often a time delay between obligating funds to projects and the money going all the way out the door."

Further, Lindstrom told Gregg: “Regarding the homelessness programs you reference, 100 percent of the FY23 funding has been fully committed. Regarding the housing development programs with balances – development of affordable housing, workforce housing, and the community revitalization program – all of those funds (except for $2.5 million) have been obligated.”

[Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Gregg for providing ConvergenceRI with access to her stories. It is the kind of collaboration that can improve the accountability of government in Rhode Island, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion.]

© | subscribe | contact us | report problem | About | Advertise

powered by creative circle media solutions

Join the conversation

Want to get ConvergenceRI
in your inbox every Monday?

Type of subscription (choose one):

We will contact you with subscription details.

Thank you for subscribing!

We will contact you shortly with subscription details.