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When Rep. June Speakman talks, people listen

The Housing Commission chair outlines the challenges ahead for the General Assembly in the coming months

Photo by Richard Asinof

Rep. June Speakman

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/31/23
Rep. June Speakman discusses the challenges ahead for the legislative study commission on housing, when it reconvenes in September.
How will the concept that housing is health care become translated into a plan of action for future investments on the campuses of health care facilities? Is there a way to attract primary care providers to practice in Rhode Island by creating a housing stipend or access to a campus living arrangement nearby where they will be working? What role can health insurers play in creating support for health centers that can provide primary care to young parents and their children that prevent overuse of emergency rooms, similar to what Clinica Esperanza/Hope Clinic is doing in Olneyville? How can mobile programs for blood pressure monitoring be expanded in Rhode Island, expanding on the pioneering work of Healthcentric Advisors, as a way of improving maternal health outcomes?
The naming of a building in Woonsocket for community hero Josie Byrd and the celebration of her advocacy on behalf of disenfranchised individuals stood in sharp contrast to the arrival of the controversial “Dignity Bus RI,” purchased by the Woonsocket City Council from a Christian ministry for $150,000, with support from the Rhode Island Foundation.
The hoopla surrounding the arrival of the bus, which was manufactured with the help of a media-savvy head of the nonprofit Christian ministry, will soon fade away. But the local community advocacy practiced by Byrd has created a different kind of narrative with staying power.

PROVIDENCE – No matter where you look these days, the housing crisis in Rhode Island remains a constant presence, but it is obscured, residing just below the surface of most news coverage – a human drama of recurring tragic landscapes hidden in the encampments in numerous cities.

The narrative of Rhode Island families struggling to survive often seems to gets “lost” to the endless distractions that dominate the headlines focused on scandal and mayhem. Instead, there seems to be a constant drumbeat of good news being pushed out by state government, celebrating how it has finally mobilized its resources to make affordable housing more of a priority.

For instance, five new job postings were announced on Tuesday, July 25, by the RI Department of Housing, including a chief of program development, a programming services officer, a principal planner, a principal housing specialist, and a chief of strategic planning, monitoring, and evaluation.

The goal of the new hires, according to Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor, is to bring on “new team members who will help build our organizational capacity, enhancing our impact on the issue of housing affordability and homelessness in Rhode Island.” To quote intrepid WPRO radio reporter Steve Klamkin, “Really?”

Translated, the state is busy ramping up its own bureaucracy to manage the state’s affordable housing conundrum.

Demand for affordable housing continues to be at an all-time high level. One sign of the constant demand: On Tuesday, July 25, RI Housing announced that it was closing its Homeowner Assistance Fund to new applications after helping more than 1,700 potential homeowners.

The day before, on Monday, July 24, Gov. Dan McKee offered his own self-congratulatory tweet, proclaiming: “Right now, affordable housing is under construction in: Bristol, Coventry, Cranston, Cumberland, E. Greenwich, E. Prov., Exeter, Middletown, Newport, N. Smithfield, N. Prov., Pawtucket, PVD, S. Kingstown, Tiverton, Warwick, Warren, W. Warwick, [and] Woonsocket.” And, the Governor continued, with enthusiasm: “We are just getting started.”

Giving credit where credit is due
For sure, getting the aircraft carrier that is the state bureaucracy turned around when it comes to housing deserves much applause and credit.

Much of that credit, in turn, belongs to R.I. House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi, who shepherded 13 out of 14 proposed housing bills into laws during the last session of the General Assembly.

And, the credit for the heavy lifting in support of that legislation belonged to Rep. June Speakman, who chaired a legislative study commission on the Rhode Island Low and Moderate Income Housing Act that heard testimony and vetted the proposed legislation, allowing the many differing voices to be heard, in public.

The study commission, said Jennifer Hawkins, president and executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, helped to change the conversation at the General Assembly. “Speaker Shekarchi was smart to appoint Rep. Speakman as the Chair of the LMI Commission,” Hawkins told ConvergenceRI in a recent interview. “She is a strong facilitator of the dialogue; which is not always easy to do, given the fact so many of us on the Commission are not shrinking violets.”

Hawkins continued: “The Commission has admittedly expanded its scope to [investigate] the myriad of factors that stymie affordable housing production. I think the leadership of Speaker Shekarchi, Chair Speakman, Whip Kazazian, and others in the House has resulted in an elevation of the issue that is “unprecedented” – an adjective that gets thrown around a lot these days.”

What may be next on the agenda?
In early July, after the end of the legislative session, ConvergenceRI reached out to Rep. Speakman to ask her views of the legislative tasks ahead and the challenges that remained when it comes to housing.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Rep. June Speakman, conducted through email, talking about the future issues that may become part of the legislative agenda.

ConvergenceRI: What are the next priorities on the agenda for the Commission, moving forward, to continue to improve the landscape for housing in Rhode Island?
SPEAKMAN: The name of the commission has changed to the Commission on Housing Affordability to broaden the focus beyond, but still including, the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act.

We will begin meeting again in September and are developing our agenda for the coming year now. Among the topics I expect that we will study are: housing and older Rhode Islanders; net-zero affordable housing; the housing needs of people with special needs; and the role of Rhode Island’s public housing authorities -- along with our on-going focus on the refining and implementation of existing legislation.

And we will look for frequent updates from the Secretary of Housing on production of units and the flow of state funds into that production.

ConvergenceRI: Does the Commission plan to look into the potential for new legislation to spur greater collaboration with nursing homes as a way to create a campus approach to match existing facilities with housing needs, similar to what was done with the former Charlesgate facility?
SPEAKMAN: The Commission, along with the Land Use Commission, will continue to look at every option for increasing the supply of affordable housing in Rhode Island. While the issue of collaboration of nursing homes has not yet come before the commission, that is certainly an option worth studying.

ConvergenceRI: Can the Commission create the opportunity to identify and measure the needs for recovery housing in Rhode Island — and what new legislative framework may be needed to spur such investments?
SPEAKMAN: This, too, is not a particular population that the commission has focused on. Rather, we have focused on tools for increasing production in general.

But the increased funding for housing overall provides greater opportunities for agencies that offer recovery housing to get financial support.

The Commission would welcome hearing about the needs of this community at one of our meetings this year.

The Secretary of Housing is tasked with including in his review of the housing priorities statewide the need for increasing any/all housing capacity such as recovery housing. The Commission’s work can feed into that review.

ConvergenceRI: What is the importance of developing housing strategies in RI that focus on the needs of women-run households from an economic security framework?
SPEAKMAN: The focus of the Commission has been on shaping policy in a way that will encourage housing production across the income spectrum, but particularly for those at the bottom of the income ladder.

Because of the gender pay gap and insufficient availability of quality child care, women-run households are more prevalent at the lower end of the income scale.

Programs that supply housing for low- and moderate-income families are, therefore, more likely to help those women-run households.

We need to make sure that those units come on line as quickly as possible to provide those families with the housing stability and affordability that they deserve.

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