Affordable housing or land conservation is a false choice. RI must address these needs together.

Affordable housing or land conservation is a false choice.  RI must address these needs together.

Rhode Island, like many other states across the country, faces significant challenges in meeting the housing needs of its residents. A 2016 study by HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University predicted a surge in housing demand due to an increasing number of households and a trend toward smaller household sizes. To meet this escalating demand, the study predicted that an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 new homes would be needed over the next decade.

Nearly eight years after the planned decade, only about 11,000 building permits have been issued statewide — not even a third of what was predicted was needed. According to a 2023 report from the Rhode Island Foundation, Rhode Island’s net housing production per capita ranked 38th in the nation. In 2021, new construction added only about 1,400 homes to our statewide inventory, ranking last nationally for construction starts per capita.

Such low levels of housing production do not adequately meet the needs of Rhode Island residents, leading to higher housing costs, housing insecurity, and homelessness. The consequences of housing shortages are becoming increasingly serious, and as a state we are at a critical juncture. To tackle the housing crisis, we must embrace housing construction and encourage the start of new construction.

Meanwhile, Rhode Island’s forests, farms, and open spaces are hard at work generating a wide range of services that benefit residents but are often underappreciated. These lands filter and clean our air and drinking water, provide outdoor recreation opportunities, connect important habitats and increase biodiversity, reduce flood and heat risks associated with climate change, and support local food systems, thriving agricultural businesses and tourism economies. These important open spaces are rapidly disappearing due to economic pressure to convert them to development or other more profitable land uses.

So here we stand, at a proverbial crossroads: build more or preserve more? What if there was a third option? For too long, there has been a misconception that Rhode Islanders can enjoy an abundance of housing or access to natural areas, but not both. We aim to dispel this notion that we have to choose between the two with proposed legislation (H7699/S2638) to reform and revitalize the dormant Housing and Conservation Trust Board.

In 1990, Rhode Island established the Housing and Conservation Trust Fund, inspired by a successful initiative in Vermont aimed at boosting housing construction and encouraging land conservation. Unfortunately, the trust fund never received funding and the board was never appointed.

While the current legislation under consideration by the General Assembly does not allocate specific resources, it does provide a strategic framework. By establishing a Housing and Conservation Board, the state can promote closer collaboration between housing and conservation efforts. The opportunity to engage in productive dialogue around compact development and smart growth strategies provides us with a way to effectively address both critical needs. Future funding, administered by the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, would be strategically allocated to supporting low- and moderate-income housing and land conservation initiatives, and would prioritize projects that achieve both goals together.

Proposed amendments also seek to expand the composition of the board from 9 to 15 members, ensuring broader representation of Rhode Island’s diverse communities. Encouraging the appointment of stakeholders from the affordable housing, land use planning and conservation sectors will further enrich the perspectives of the board.

Integrating affordable housing and land conservation priorities offers a promising path forward for Rhode Island. The Vermont Housing & Conservation Board is a shining example of the positive impact such collaboration can achieve. Founded in 1987, it has transformed communities across Vermont, facilitating the creation of 15,000 affordable homes, conserving nearly half a million acres of land, preserving more than 800 farms and rehabilitating 80 historic buildings.

As we chart a path forward, let us seize the opportunity to address our housing and land conservation challenges simultaneously and comprehensively. Failure to do so risks leaving critical needs unmet and undermining the sustainability of our families, communities and state.

Aligned with a shared vision, with an emphasis on collaboration and innovation, our state can become a place where all Rhode Islanders have access to a safe and affordable place to live with access to clean air, clean water, open spaces, and healthy food.

Melina Lodge is the Executive Director of the Housing Network of Rhode Island, and Kate Sayles is the Executive Director of the Rhode Island Land Trust Council.