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Housing as a Human Right – Legislating the Issue: An Interview with Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi

This is the first installment of Organizing Around Homelessness, a BPR interview series on the housing crisis in Rhode Island.

K. Joseph Shekarchi has served as the Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives since January 2021 and was re-elected in January 2023. Considered a moderate Democrat, he has represented District 23 in Warwick since 2013 after extensive experience as a land-use attorney. Upon his election as Speaker, Shekarchi pledged to make housing issues the cornerstone of his administration, putting forth numerous bills designed to tackle the state’s housing crisis from multiple angles. 

Ben Ringel: I understand housing has been a top priority for you after rising to become Speaker. Why?

Speaker Joe Shekarchi: It’s a very severe problem that somebody needs to address. I’m a land-use attorney by nature, so I’ve been in this housing field for years and I’ve just seen it get worse and worse. I’ve seen homelessness skyrocket. I’ve seen affordable housing disappear from the market. I’ve seen a lot of people struggle because they can’t afford or find any affordable housing. The youngest, brightest, and most talented–like a guy named Ben Ringel graduating from Brown University–won’t stay around because they can’t afford to find a good home or good apartment. They’ll move to a different state–that’s brain drain. 

BR: How would you assess the current housing crisis in Rhode Island? How bad is it, and is it currently getting worse or getting better?

JS: With the weather getting warmer, less people are looking for urgent housing right now, but the reality is, I don’t think it’s getting better. I think it might even be getting worse, because last month, Rhode Island was dead last in new building permits. We’re not creating enough affordable housing or housing in general. 

BR: What have been the main drivers of the housing crisis in Rhode Island? 

JS: It’s a very simple problem to diagnose, and it’s much more complex to solve, but we simply do not have enough housing. We’re still relatively cheap in terms of our regional neighbors, and we have a lot of beautiful geographic areas: the beach, the water, the woods. So, people from Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and other places all flock to our state for second homes. The reality is they’ve bought a lot of inventory. You also have developers and real estate investors buying up housing, turning it into Airbnbs, and the recent shortage of lumber and raw materials have sent supply costs through the roof. All of this makes it very hard to build new housing stock, and we can go down the list and see that many things have contributed to a lack of housing, and there’s also the whole NIMBY issue. [NIMBY stands for “Not In My Back Yard,” and is used to refer to residents opposed to proposed developments in their local area]. A lot of rural communities do not want new housing because they don’t want certain people to live in their neighborhoods.

BR: As Speaker of the House, how do you plan to address the crisis? 

JS: I just launched 14 bills, the product of the hard work of two commissions that we formed. These are the leading experts in the field, and together we crafted 14 bills that help launch incentives for the private development of new housing. They’ll have a significant impact with some changes in the court system, appeal process, and application process. We put a little bit of incentive money into transportation-oriented development, but the big takeaway from this project is that it makes it easier for builders to build new housing in Rhode Island without taking away any local control of housing. Cities in Rhode Island can still say no to any particular housing project in the community.

BR: With these 14 bills, how do you ensure this housing is affordable, and that it doesn’t just become units like Airbnb that contribute to higher prices? 

JS: The bills don’t restrict what type of housing can be built because that’s not what it’s intended to do. However, we do have incentives for businesses: we give higher density bonuses for affordable housing, but there’s nothing in this package that specifically requires any private developers to build affordable housing. 

We’ve also launched a Department of Housing and we’re going to work with Secretary [Stefan] Pryor, the new Secretary of Housing, to make sure that the state’s focus is affordable housing. 

We’re looking at a very creative solution that no other state has tried. It’s being used in Montgomery County, Maryland. It’s a project where the state actually builds housing, fills it out, and refinances it, but instead of paying itself back, it takes that money it earns and uses it to build a second unit, and so on and so forth. It’s essentially a revolving door of housing. You make an initial commitment, and then it works from there. 

BR: That’s an interesting concept. What’s the status of the 14 bills right now? 

JS: They were introduced on March 2nd, so they’ve been in the public domain for only about a week. 

I see it like fine wine: you open the cork, you let it breathe a little bit. I want people to look at it, and I don’t want to rush them, but we’re going to start the hearing process next week. I’ll be testifying on some of my legislation next week as well.

BR: What do you think is the likelihood that they’ll pass?

JS: I think it’s a strong likelihood that after a public hearing, listening to my colleagues who are very enthusiastic and hearing from my supportive co-sponsors of the legislation, these bills will pass the House, and then we’ll continue our normal process of negotiation with the Senate.

BR: With these 14 bills, what do you think is the primary way that they’re different than the housing legislation that’s been proposed, debated, and maybe even implemented in the state in the past? 

JS: For one, there’s no cost to the package. Only one of the 14 bills has a small cost for incentivizing affordable housing in transportation-oriented areas, and we can use already allocated money for that. And for the cities and towns, it gives them control over the decision-making process. 

BR: This local autonomy seems to be particularly important, especially due to some of the rural resistance to your bills. Exeter Town Council President Daniel Patterson told Target 12 that “the problem you have in the General Assembly up there – the majority of the legislators are from urban areas and they have no clue what’s going on in rural areas.” What’s your response to this?

JS: I respectfully disagree with Town Council President Patterson. I live and breathe land use all over the state, including rural development, and I know what they have and don’t have. Quite frankly, he was commenting on my bills before they were released. I would challenge you as a reporter to go back to him and ask if he’s read the bills. I know that he hadn’t then because they weren’t out yet, but now, I’d like to know if he’s actually read them and has something to say. 

BR: How has the Biden administration’s policy impacted homelessness in Rhode Island? How much federal support does the state receive? 

JS: We get a lot of federal help, thanks to our delegation of Senator Jack Reed, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Congressman David Cicilline, and Congressman Seth Magaziner. We punch above our weight and we do okay, but there’s no specifically targeted Biden relief for housing that we have really utilized here that I’m aware of. I’ve been quoted nationally, the Speaker from Rhode Island, saying this: “If the federal government is going to make a dollar available, I want it.” If there’s money available for housing, we’re going to go after it aggressively; we want it in Rhode Island.

BR: Numerous local organizations in Providence do lots of work related to direct relief and legislative advocacy. I remember last fall there was the sit-in in front of the Capitol, and protests related to housing are happening all of the time. How has their activism shaped the agenda of the House?

JS: I don’t really think it has shaped the House’s agenda because we have been at the forefront of this work. Steve Ahlquist from Uprise Rhode Island has been giving the house a lot of credit. This has been a priority for us every day since I became Speaker three years ago. The protests didn’t really affect us because it’s been front and center on our agenda for a long time, but it did get a lot of media attention, and that’s important in making sure everyone else recognizes that we have a problem. For a lot of people, it’s easy to turn a blind eye, so in that respect it was good, raising the public consciousness in Rhode Island. 

BR: That makes sense. So, if the House is already on top of it, how would you assess the stance of the Senate and the Governor. How aggressively are they pushing to address this issue? 

JS: The governor has made a commitment and put money in the budget for housing; we have weekly discussions where we convene. Senate President [Dominick] Ruggerio and Senator [Meghan E.] Kallman have put in lots of legislation on the issue. We all want the same thing, which is to address the problem, but everyone’s looking at it differently. That’s the beauty of the system of government. We’ll get ideas from the Senate and from the Governor, and they’ll get ideas from the House. We’ll all come together and put together legislation that’s stronger. 

BR: I hear Governor McKee has recently appointed a new Secretary of Housing, Stefan Pryor. Are you hopeful for this new leader? 

JS: We have high hopes for Secretary Pryor. I’ve known him since he was Secretary of Commerce; he is politically savvy and knows how to get things done. I want him to continue with that same vigor and passion in the housing field.

BR: What do you really hope to accomplish before your term ends? What changes need to be made for that to happen?

JS: There are three areas that I really want to focus on this year. Firstly, our budget. We are constitutionally obligated to pass a balanced budget, and we take that responsibility very seriously. That’s going to be a challenge this year, because our revenue is slowly but surely falling off. Second, you’ve hit the nail on the head. We want to move the needle on housing; we want to pass legislation. And we’ve done that so far: we’ve passed 17 different bills in the last two years. We want to continue this work. Lastly, I want to launch a bioscience hub adjacent to Brown University, in cooperation with the world class medical school and our great hospital systems in the state. I want the government, academia, and the private sector to get together and launch a bioscience center. 

BR: What would you say to people in Rhode Island who are teetering on the poverty line, living on the streets, or in and out of housing who are disillusioned by the government’s false promises? What would you say to the people who don’t think the needle has been moved yet on this issue and are out there living this issue? 

JS: I want them to know that housing is available; there is shelter available. We’re trying to help, and the issue has exacerbate itself lately, but it’s a 30-year-old problem that’s going to take a little bit of time to correct. There are great shelters and great nonprofits who will provide housing, but it’s a very complicated situation. There’s also some people dealing with mental health issues and substance abuse, but there are some people who don’t have those problems. There are some people with good jobs, making good money, but they just can’t find a house. We’re doing our best to help. We also launched a program this January called Pay for Success. We hope we’ll make it work. 

[Editor’s note: The PFS-PSH pilot program explicitly seeks to house individuals who are high utilizers of health care, the justice system, and our homeless shelters, with a goal of diminishing statewide costs and improving the lives of those with exceptionally complex needs.]

BR: Conversely, what would you say on the flip side to affluent Rhode Islanders who don’t particularly care about the issue and think the government should spend its time and energy elsewhere? 

JS: The housing crisis is at every level of housing. Someone you know is affected by the lack of available housing: it could be your policeman, your kid’s teacher, your firefighter, or your mailman. They’re there in the affordable housing sphere and they don’t have it. There are also people who are dying. We have had two reported deaths of homelessness this past year, and those were in northern Rhode Island. This is not just an inner city core problem. This is an everywhere problem, and it’s going to require everybody to fix it. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.