Innovation Ecosystem

It’s all about the data, the data, the data…

In housing, in health care, in workforce development, three compelling data narratives paint a story of how to change the status quo – if anyone is listening

Image courtesy of X post by Cortney Nicolato

The cover of the 2023 Housing Fact Book of Rhode Island.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 10/23/23
In PART One of a three-part series, ConvergenceRI conducted an in-depth interview with Brenda Clement, executive director of HousingWorks RI, discussing the findings in the 2023 Housing Fact Book.
How can the General Assembly change the problem of low-wage jobs by increasing the Medicaid rates paid to providers, increases that were recommended by OHIC? Will Rhode Island KIDS COUNT be more aggressive in holding elected officials accountable to increase pay for Early Intervention, childcare, and community health workers? Does there need to be a more precise definition of what “affordable” means in the context of housing, given that only Central Falls and Burrillville currently have homes and rental units that are affordable in Rhode Island? How important is the ability to create your own narrative as part of workforce development skills?
On Thursday, Oct. 26, the Childhood Lead Action Projection, or CLAP, will celebrate its 30th anniversary, a testament to the tenacity of health care advocates to protect Rhode Island children from the entirely preventable scourge of lead poisoning. The facts are undeniable: childhood lead poisoning is connected to low standardized testing scores and increased behavioral problems as well as chronic absenteeism. Among this year’s award winners for advocacy is R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha, who brought lawsuits against negligent landlords for failure to correct their lead contaminated houses.


PROVIDENCE – The release of the 2023 Housing Fact Book by HousingWorks RI on Friday morning, Oct. 20, forced the Rhode Island news media to report on some disliked facts about the state’s growing wealth gap – at least for a brief moment in the news cycle. The compelling data narrative produced by HousingWorks RI also revealed pathways toward potential solutions to the perplexing affordable housing conundrum.

Two takeaways from the Housing Fact Book illustrated just how dire the current housing landscape has become:

The one municipality in Rhode Island where a family with an annual income of less than $100,000 could afford to buy a home is Central Falls – where the annual income needed to purchase a median-priced home was $90,350.

The one municipality in Rhode Island where a family could affordably rent a two-bedroom apartment is Burrillville – where the annual income needed to rent a two-bedroom apartment was $41,022.

The day before the 2023 Housing Fact Book was released, Gov. Dan McKee crowed about the latest unemployment statistics for Rhode Island and the drop in the state’s unemployment rate to 2.6 percent, the lowest in recorded history. To the Governor, the low unemployment rate proved that: “Rhode Islanders are hard at work, reflecting a thriving economy and underlining the state’s commitment to economic development and employment opportunities.”

But the job numbers touted by Gov. McKee provided a distorted narrative, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion. The truth was that for most Rhode Islanders, there were few jobs that paid enough in salary to overcome the state’s extreme housing insecurity. The 2023 Housing Fact Book countered Gov. McKee’s assertions, saying: “Rhode Island’s unemployment rates are at historic lows, but the types of jobs that are most plentiful do not pay a wage that guards against housing insecurities.”

The 2023 Housing Fact Book continued: “Of the top 20 occupations considered by Rhode Island’s Department of Labor and Training in the ‘Fastest Growing Occupations, 2020-2030 Projections,’ 73 percent [86,778] do not pay enough to comfortably buy or rent a home in Rhode Island.”

On Friday morning, HousingWork RI also released the first edition of the Rhode Island Zoning Atlas – a document that will hopefully serve as an important tool in the state’s toolbox to help solve the affordable housing conundrum.

In ConvergenceRI's opinion, Rhode Island needs to move beyond the world envisioned in the aftermath of World War II – with single-family homes dominating a suburban landscape of malls and shopping centers, as downtown urban centers [once known as cities] became corporate districts of high-rise office buildings, nonprofit universities and hospitals. Currently, more than 80 percent of Rhode Island is zoned for single-family housing.

At the same time, the state needs to create an objective source of data about future Rhode Island zoning – such as the accurate mapping of coastal sea rise along the state’s disappearing shoreline.

Translated, the middle class is Rhode Island is disappearing – and there are many reasons why this occurring. The maps of the cost-burdened communities in Rhode Island – such as those expertly drawn by Eli Sherman of WPRI – are symptoms of a much larger chronic economic affliction.

In PART One of a three-part series, “It’s all about the data, the data, the data…” ConvergenceRI reports on what it does best: conducting a long-form interview with Brenda Clement, the executive director of HousingWorks RI at Rogers Williams University, allowing Clement, in her own words, to tell the story about what the 2023 Housing Fact Book reveals about the housing challenges the state is facing.

In PART Two, ConvergenceRI interviews Neil Sarkar, the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Quality Institute, the home of the state’s health information exchange, CurrentCare. In the interview, Sarkar portrays the world of data for the health care landscape in Rhode Island, at a time when caregivers are leaving the profession in droves, because of burnout. (PART Two will be published in the Oct. 30 edition of ConvergenceRI.)

In PART Three, ConvergenceRI interviews Nancy Wolanski, the director of the Nonprofit Resource Center headquartered at United Way of Rhode Island, along with Cortney Nicolato, president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island, and Jully Myrthil, an intern at United Way, looking at the urgent need to integrate the nonprofit sector as a vital component of the state’s economic future.

All three stories provide potent examples of how data can provide us with the opportunity to change the dominant narrative in order to break free from the status quo and, perhaps equally important, to translate the data into meaningful personal stories that can change our disrupted lives for the better.

Such in-depth reporting – long-form journalism that allows folks to speak in their own voices, in a way that illuminates their lives, hopefully can serve as an enduring legacy of ConvergenceRI.

Ahead of the curve
Last week, The Washington Post did an in-depth report, “Stress is weathering our bodies from the inside out,” looking at how “striving to get ahead in an unequal society contributes to people in the United States aging quicker, becoming sicker and dying younger.” [See link to Washington Post story below.]

Eight years ago, on Oct. 28, 2015, ConvergenceRI sponsored an event, “Building a Collaborative Strategy To Reduce Toxic Stress in Rhode Island: A Conversation/Convergence,” with the goal of catalyzing the development of an innovative, collaborative strategy on toxic stress, bringing together experts from numerous disciplines – neuroscience research, early childhood pediatrics, counseling, family visiting, nursing, social work, and healthy housing – to find common ground on how to move forward. [See link below to the ConvergenceRI story, “How to build a collaborative strategy around reducing toxic stress in RI.”]

The event, organized in partnership with RIC’s Kalina Brabeck, Ph.D., drew more than 120 participants. The co-sponsors included the R.I. Department of Health, Care New England, Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, South County Health System, Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, The Providence Plan, the R.I. Public Health Institute, and R.I. BHDDH.

The three-part series in today’s edition of ConvergenceRI could provide the impetus to launch a similar kind of gathering, focused on how to create a new narrative about our lives in Rhode Island,

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Brenda Clement, executive director of HousingWorks RI, to begin the process of telling the story of our lives and how we can build an innovative survival strategy for Rhode Island. She voiced optimism for the potential for what she called “transformational” change.

“We’ve had political attention at varying times, not always the way that we wanted it,” Clement told ConvergenceRI. “But it’s very rare that we have had both the need, the political attention, and money [to invest] at the same time. Right now, we’ve got that brief window of opportunity to try and spend this money and use these investments to make some transformational change [emphasis added].”

ConvergenceRI: What new legislation are you hoping that can be enacted in the 2024 legislative session?
CLEMENT: I think we are going to have to continue to refine and sharpen some of the tools in the new legislation that was passed this past session, as we start to implement them. Obviously, changes need to happen and occur. So, I think that there will be some of that. The details are yet to be determined.

The only bill that didn’t pass in the Speaker’s housing package last year was the accessory dwelling units [legislation, often referred to as in-law apartments], and it’s another tool that we’d like to add to the tool belt, creating intergenerational housing supports to help our elder adults as they age – and want to age in place and to age in community.

And then, more of the stuff, a least on my end, on the budget fronts, where we look at some of the successes that we saw in the COVID relief funding, investing more money for programs that we know can make a difference.

The big one, in my head, is rent relief, having some sort of state rental – not a subsidy program – but an emergency fund and a resource that people can turn to, so we can keep them from falling further behind in rent, and ultimately, preventing them from falling into the homelessness system.

We know that this worked really well during COVID, when people’s income were cut. We know from our work and from the data collected in partnership with the Eviction Defense Project, that the funding proved critical to help prevent evictions.

ConvergenceRI: Why is the new Zoning Atlas for Rhode Island such a critical tool in pushing forward to create more affordable housing?
CLEMENT: I think it is critical on a couple of levels. First of all, it had not existed before. So, it becomes another new tool in our tool-belt.

It is a way for us to look comprehensively at our state about where growth makes sense. In enacting some of the laws that were passed in the last legislative session, about how to repurpose development around transit lines and hubs, looking at where we have water and sewer lines. We do intend to add more Rhode Island-specific things to the Atlas, such as sea-level rise and other things that are of concern to coastal communities, but not necessarily to Montana, and other groups that are participating in the national zoning atlas project.

We think it is an important tool to start planning and managing [development] in our communities. We think it is a good first step, and one that we will be able to continue to grow and develop.

ConvergenceRI: How can more aggressive enforcement of housing code violations for things like lead contamination translate into better outcomes for families in Rhode Island?
CLEMENT: Before I get to that, can I go back to zoning for a second? One of the key findings in this wasn’t a surprise to us. But again, when you look at it, and when you see it on the map, more than 80 percent of Rhode Island is zoned single-family.

That means a lot of what we consider “iconic” in Rhode Island – like Wickford Village or Pawtuxet Village or other village clusters and developments that exist now couldn’t be replicated under local zoning ordinances.

And, zoning has evolved to become much more of an exclusionary tool rather than a planning tool that it was intended for.

I think, again, the Rhode Island Zoning Atlas is [an effort] to try and put those things out there and to have those conversations. In some ways, those may be hard conversations to have, to look where it makes sense to grow and develop as a community.

ConvergenceRI: Where is the best place for those conversations to occur?
CLEMENT: Obviously cities and towns need to be engaged and involved. Statewide planning, as you know, has mostly transportation planners, because that is the source of most of their funding and money.

They desperately need more housing folks. They do have one person who kind of works on it, part-time, but we need more housing planning and growth management planning in the state, looking at growth centers, looking at transit corridors, and other places where it makes sense to grow and develop and repurpose and reuse buildings.

Ultimately, those conversations should be happening at the statewide planning level, they should be happening at the Legislature, to provide more incentives to communities to participate.

ConvergenceRI: What are the best examples of collaborative approaches in affordable housing development projects in RI?
CLEMENT: I think we’ve got a number of communities that are working very collaboratively. The money and funding for housing in Rhode Island – over 75 percent of our funding for housing is from federal programs and resources, whereas only 20-25 percent is from actual state and local dollars. We rely on federal and state to give us the money, but what’s available and when it’s available is controlled at the local level.

That is why the Zoning Atlas is so important; it is a catalyst for getting cooperation at the local community level to encourage planning, growth and development.

We can see a lot of examples from the local nonprofit developers that work very closely with communities throughout the state. East Providence is a great example. We’ve got a lot of great housing projects all around the state that we can point to as great collaborative efforts by local communities.

ConvergenceRI: What are the best strategies to turn the excellent data in the 2023 Housing Fact Book into solutions and action plans?
CLEMENT: First of all, thank you for your nice compliments. Our team worked very hard on making sure that we produced high quality, very consistent data.

Again, I think that a lot of it is keeping our attention on this issue, keeping our focus on the issue. For the first time in my career, working in this space, we have always had the need. Right? The need has been there for a long time. We have reported on it for years and years.

Sometimes, we have had some political attention on this need, usually in a negative way, such as after the stock market crashed in 2008 and the foreclosure messes that were a part of that process.

ConvergenceRI: How important is it to focus on women who are head of households in creating solutions for the affordable housing crisis?
CLEMENT: It is so critical. I mean, the data that we see that we found in our recent “Women and Housing” report with the Women’s Fund, the data that we received as part of our partnership with Rhode Island Legal Services and the Center for Justice for Eviction, the large bulk of people who are the most cost-burdened and who are having the most difficultly keeping a roof over their head are women, often women of color, and women with children. [See links below to ConvergenceRI stories, “We are all connected,” and “Women are at a higher risk of housing insecurity.”]

This is no surprise, because women are often working in low-wage jobs. They are often, because of family duties and obligations and lack of childcare and other supports, they are often out of the workforce.

So they struggle. It drives me crazy that just a few years ago, some of those workers who take care of our children every day, watch our parents and grandparents in assisted living or provide community health services at the height of the pandemic, we were hailing them as heros. We had signs in front of their workplaces, thanking them for helping us.

How you go “from hero to zero” within a matter of a couple of years makes me mad, and yet, those people who are providing critical services in our communities are the ones that struggle the most.

ConvergenceRI: What are the biggest sources of misinformation and disinformation when it comes to housing in Rhode Island?
CLEMENT: We are constantly fighting back on myths and misconceptions. We have study after study after study that show that property values don’t decrease [as a result of affordable housing]. We share that data and information, time and time again, but it doesn’t always permeate through. People still want to believe want they want to believe. They don’t’ want to see change happen in their community.

And let’s be honest with ourselves. Affordable housing has image problems; people have very ill-informed, pre-conceived notions about what it looks like and who needs it.

One out of every three Rhode Islanders is cost-burdened. So, somebody in your network, or somebody in your family, is struggling. But there has always been in conversations about affordable housing an undercurrent of class-ism and racism.

ConvergenceRI: What can I do in my reporting to help tell the story about the need for affordable housing in Rhode Island?
CLEMENT: I think that you ask great questions and you regularly keep trying to connect housing to health care.

I want to go back to the question you asked about lead poisoning. Rhode Island really has two housing problems as it relates to affordable housing. One is quantity; we don’t have enough of it. We have been under-building for years. And we have seen household sizes shrink as people have aged. There is more demand for smaller units of housing.

We also have a quality problem. We have some of the oldest housing stock in the country. A lot of that housing, particularly multi-family housing, was built prior to 1940, so there are lots of issues around lead and asbestos.

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