PROVIDENCE — The housing crisis. Abortion coverage. Shoreline access.
Those are some of the major issues the General Assembly will be tackling during the 2023 legislative session that began this week, said Rhode Island PBS “A Lively Experiment” host Jim Hummel and Providence College political science Professor Tony Affigne, on the Rhode Island Report podcast.
Affigne and Hummel talked about what the state can do to get cities and towns to build more affordable housing.
“We’ve seen ideas coming from the Senate and the House, to different degrees of intensity or enthusiasm, to make it more possible for local housing authorities, who are exempt from any of the regulatory restrictions, to actually get in the business of developing new and affordable housing,” Affigne said.
He noted that House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, has said he wants to look at a pilot program in Montgomery County, Maryland, in which the state invests money to build an apartment complex with market rate, low-income, and workforce housing, and then borrows money against the complex to build even more housing — essentially creating a revolving fund paid for by renters over time.
But Hummel said local governments have raised concerns about past proposals such as a registry of vacant schools or municipal buildings that could used for housing.
In one town, he said, “They had mothballed a couple of schools that they wound up needing down the line. So is the state going to say, ‘OK, you really need to develop that into affordable housing’? And then ultimately, what’s the local control?”
Affigne said the state could make progress through “transit-oriented development.” For example, he said that if you go down Interstate 95 in Rhode Island, many of the exit ramps have vacant land near the exit ramps.
“What’s happening in many places around the world, not so much in the U.S., is transit-oriented developments, where a developer with support from the state and municipalities, will create a development from scratch that is near public transit, that is near highways, that includes mixed-income housing, includes residential and commercial space, includes office space, creates a walkable community,” he said.
Last year’s legislative session ended just before the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and Hummel said he thinks there is support to pass the Equality and Abortion Coverage Act, which would allow Medicaid recipients and state employees to use their health insurance to cover the cost of abortions. “If the leadership’s behind it, I don’t see any impediment to that,” he said.
The House passed a shoreline access bill last year, but it went nowhere in the Senate. Property owners and developers along the coast often “resist the open access to the shoreline that is actually in the state constitution,” Affigne said. “So we’re going to see continued battling over that.”
Affigne also talked about the increasing diversity in the General Assembly.
“When the first African-American and Latino legislators were elected, beginning in the early 1990s, it was pretty lonely up there for them,” he said. “And to the extent that they were able to build influence, it was built slowly over time, working with the leadership.”
But the last few election cycles have brought to the Assembly “younger, more assertive, Black, Latino, and now Asian-American legislators,” Affigne said.
“They don’t need to wait as long as that first wave of legislators of color did. Their personalities are somewhat more assertive, and they’re also in a very different social context,” he said. “They’ll have more public backing and will probably be more successful earlier in their careers than their predecessors were.”
The podcast concluded with Affigne and Hummel offering the New Year’s resolutions they wish the General Assembly would make in 2023.
To get the latest episode each week, follow Rhode Island Report podcast on Apple Podcasts and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player above.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.