News & Event
By Christine Dunn
Journal Staff Writer
Saturday, December 02, 2017
PROVIDENCE – Foreclosed and abandoned properties that had become magnets for criminal activity in Olneyville were targeted for inclusion in Amherst Gardens, ONE Neighborhood Builders’ newest development.
ONB purchased 13 distressed properties for Amherst Gardens, and they were “strategically selected” for their nuisance effect, high visibility, proximity to existing ONB properties, and the positive impact their improvement would have on surrounding homes, according to Executive Director Jennifer Hawkins. Eight buildings had to be demolished and replaced with new homes; the others were renovated.
The result of the $10.4-million development is 36 new affordable apartments and 2 new commercial spaces in the Amherst Street neighborhood.
Hawkins joked that her predecessors, including former executive directors Frank Shea and Michael DeVos, “were really good at buying crummy properties.”
City officials at Friday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony included Mayor Jorge Elorza, Policy Chief Col. Hugh T. Clements Jr. and Police Cmdr. Thomas Verdi, and acting City Council President Sabina Matos and City Councilman Michael Correia, who represent the Olneyville neighborhood.
Housing leaders including Nancy Smith Greer from HUD, Barbara Fields, executive director of Rhode Island Housing, Michael Tondra from the state’s Office of Housing and Community Development, Brenda Clement from HousingWorks RI and Melina Lodge from the Housing Network were also in attendance.
“Welcome to Ward 15,” Matos said at the Friday morning event, held in the first-floor commercial space at 234 Manton Ave., one of the reclaimed properties. Affordable apartments have been built above the street-level storefront.
Matos said it’s been exciting to see revitalization in Olneyville, after “we have been through so many challenges.” Olneyville was disproportionately affected by the foreclosure crisis. Housing prices escalated rapidly during the housing boom, then crashed after 2008.
Elorza said that today, leaders of the city’s universities and hospitals are interested in investing in Olneyville.
“Before, people didn’t want to come to Olneyville,” Matos said. But “there are a lot of decent people who live in Olneyville and they all want a chance to live a decent life.”
“I ‘heart’ Olneyville,” said Jeanne Cola of LISC Rhode Island, a project partner. “It has a unique sense of belonging and place. It truly is on the rise.”
Fields also lauded the efforts to bring safe streets and good schools” to Olneyville, but added that she is “very worried” about the tax reform effort in Washington.
The possible elimination of tax credits that support public-private affordable housing investments could undermine the work of housing advocates, she said.
On Twitter: @ChristineMDunn
Courtesy of Providence Journal
By Christine Dunn, Journal Staff Writer
Posted Nov 30, 2017 at 12:10PM, Updated Nov 30, 2017 at 12:26PM
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A playground for an elementary school in South Providence, downtown revitalization in Woonsocket, and a new continuing-education center in Central Falls were among the projects that won support in the first round of awards from the $10-million urban revitalization/blight relief fund approved by state voters in 2016 as part of the $50-million affordable housing bond.
The Rhode Island Housing Board of Commissioners on Thursday morning approved close to $3.8 million in awards to six different projects. The next round of awards is planned for March 2018. Known formally as the Acquisition and Revitalization Program, its aim is to stabilize neighborhoods by targeting foreclosed or blighted residential and commercial properties and vacant lots in need of redevelopment.
Although ARP financing is available statewide, 75 percent of the funding has been set aside for urban communities.
A request for proposals went out in July, and 18 proposals requesting $10.9 million were received. Nine of the proposals failed to meet requirements. The awards approved by the board Thursday are:
—- $1 million for the Dexter Adult Learning and Workforce Development Hub in Central Falls, in a vacant building at 934 Dexter St., formerly the Dexter Credit Union building. The hub is being developed by the City of Central Falls and Rhode Island College. The project, with an estimated cost of $5.8 million, is also being supported by state and federal historic tax credits, and EPA brownfields money.
— $975,000 for the Millrace District Creative Placemaking Initiative in downtown Woonsocket. Three vacant mills at 15 Island Place and 69 South Main St. are being redeveloped as housing and commercial space by NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley, a nonprofit community development agency. There will be 58 live-work units and 6 commercial units. Rhode Island Housing said this award is for the commercial part of the project only.
— $612,484 for the Bailey Baxter Playspace Project. Working with the Nature Conservancy, the City of Providence will create a playground for the Bailey Elementary School at 65 Gordon Ave. and improve adjacent Baxter Park by redeveloping two vacant and blighted properties with lots at 56, 57, 58, 61, 62 and 66 Baxter Street. The total cost is $890,385, and the effort is also being financed by the City of Providence and Community Development Block Grant funds.
— $906,369 for Georgiaville Village Green, Smithfield’s first affordable housing development for families, at the intersection of Higgins Street and Whipple Avenue. There will be 42 apartments built for households earning less than 60 percent of area median income. It is an $11-million development by Coventry Housing Associates Corp. and Gemini Housing Corp.
— $146,727 for SWAP Inc. for 136 Rugby St., Providence.; and
— $153,528 for SWAP Inc. for 44 Lillian Ave., Providence. SWAP (Stop Wasting Abandoned Properties) will develop two-family homes on two vacant lots. Each house will include a three-bedroom homeownership apartment and a two-bedroom rental unit.
On Twitter: @ChristineMDunn
Courtesy of Providence Journal
Wednesday, November 1, 2017
2200 Southwood Drive, Nashua, NH
We invite you to be a part of the second New England Lead Conference taking place on Wednesday, November 1, 2017 in Nashua, NH. Hosted by the New England Lead Coordinating Committee, the conference will include a variety of educational sessions focusing on lead prevention, policy, model programs, outreach, the EPA’s Renovation, Remodeling and Repair Rule (RRP), lead abatement, compliance, and the economics of lead poisoning.
Read more >
October 4, 2017 in Events, Local Interest
The Narragansett Times: Dziobek steps down as Welcome House director
By KENDRA GRAVELLE Sep 29, 2017
SOUTH KINGSTOWN—When Joseph Dziobek accepted the position of executive director of Welcome House of South County nearly three years ago, he had expected the job would make for a simple transition into retirement.
But what was intended as a part-time gig turned into much more than that for Dziobek, who this week left his post.
“It’s been a challenge,” said Dziobek, whose last day on the job was Monday. “And it’s been very satisfying—I feel very close to the people who have been a part of it.”
Dziobek, 66, took the job at Welcome House after retiring from his career as CEO of Fellowship Health Resources. He said he intended only to stay for two or three years.
October 4, 2017 in Local Interest
Final Days to Register: 2017 Housing Fact Book Release
Date: Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Luncheon: 12:00pm - 1:30pm
Location: Rhode Island Convention Center, 1 Sabin Street, Providence RI
October 3, 2017 in Events, Local Interest
Rhode Island College: The Defamation Experience
Monday, October 30, 2017
5:00PM - Doors Open
6:00PM - Performance
SPONSORED BY: THE DIVISION OF COMMUNITY EQUITY AND DIVERSITY AND THE DIVISION OF STUDENT SUCCESS
THE PLAY * THE DELIBERATION * THE DISCUSSION
September 27, 2017 in Events, Local Interest
NLIHC: Sign Letters to Support Equitable Housing Recovery after Devastating Hurricanes
Help ensure that low income people and neighborhoods are treated fairly after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. A broad coalition of national, state, and local organizations is calling on Congress, FEMA, and HUD to ensure that the federal response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria is complete and equitable for everyone, especially families and individuals with the lowest incomes who are often the hardest hit by disasters and have the fewest resources to recover afterwards.
September 27, 2017 in Local Interest, National News
Roger Williams University: Social Justice Month Events
Thursday, Oct 19
Mary Tefft White Center
How Housing Works
4:00pm – 6:00pm
Sponsored by Housing Works RI and RWU Chief Diversity Officer
Keywords: socioeconomic status, race, jobs, housing, equity
Workshop with Brenda Clement, Director of Housing Works Rhode Island and Ame Lambert, RWU Chief Diversity Officer.
An overview of housing issues in Rhode Island and connections to the larger social justice agenda.
September 25, 2017 in Local Interest
Providence Journal: People on the move for the week of Sept. 17
Posted Sep 13, 2017 at 5:34 PM
Updated Sep 13, 2017 at 5:34 PM
Rhode Island LISC
Rhode Island Local Initiatives Support Corportation has welcomed two new employees. Jeremiah O’Grady, of Lincoln, joined LISC as program officer after spending more than 12 years at ONE Neighborhood Builders as real estate project manager and director of asset management and operations.
Liz Klinkenberg, of Warwick, was hired as communications director. She brings more than 15 years of public relations experience to her new position, including work for The Miami Herald and The Providence Journal.
The Providence American: Reed Announces $300k in Community Development Grants for NeighborWorks Affiliates
WASHINGTON, DC – In an effort to promote healthy, vibrant neighborhoods across Rhode Island, U.S. Senator Jack Reed today announced an additional $300,000 in federal funding for three Rhode Island-based affiliates of NeighborWorks America (NeighborWorks). These federal funds will help NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley, ONE Neighborhood Builders, and West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation to provide affordable housing opportunities, generate job growth, and enhance economic stability for working families. Earlier this year, Senator Reed also helped to secure over $750,000 in federal funding for NeighborWorks affiliates in Rhode Island, bringing total NeighborWorks investment in the state to above $1 million for fiscal year 2017.
September 21, 2017 in Federal News, Local Interest
The Providence American: Providence Unveils PVD Gives Donation Station
PROVIDENCE, RI – Mayor Jorge O. Elorza today joined members of the City Council, public safety officials, and community leaders who have been named to the PVD Gives commission for the unveiling of the City’s first Donation Station at Kennedy Plaza. The retrofitted parking meter is one of ten stations that will be installed across the city to collect funds that will support local organizations that provide housing and services to those in need.
“PVD Gives and the new Donation Stations make it easier to give back,” said Mayor Jorge Elorza. “Our collective generosity can make all the difference in the lives of those striving to get back on their feet. I encourage visitors and residents to chip in and be part of the solution.”
September 21, 2017 in Local Interest
Providence Journal: Report: New England losing 65 acres of forestland per day
By Steve LeBlanc / Associated Press
Posted Sep 19, 2017 at 11:21 AM
Updated Sep 19, 2017 at 11:21 AM
BOSTON — New England has been losing forestland to development at a rate of 65 acres per day — a loss that comes at a time when public funding for preservation of open land, both state and federal, has also been on the decline in all six states.
That’s the conclusion of a report released Tuesday by the Harvard Forest, a research institute of Harvard University.
The study found public funding for land conservation in New England dropped by half between 2008 and 2014 to $62 million per year, slightly lower than 2004 levels.
Posted:Feb 9, 2018 at 7:40 PM
Updated:Feb 9, 2018 at 8:01 PM
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Clark Schoettle, who has worked on neighborhood revitalization in Providence for nearly 35 years, will retire in June as executive director of the Providence Revolving Fund, the organization announced this week.
“It is impossible to overstate the impact that Clark has had on the City of Providence’s historic buildings and neighborhoods,” said architect Christine West, president of the Revolving Fund’s board. “The singular beauty of Providence comes from its rich historic character, and it would be difficult to identify a renewed historic building in our city that Clark has not had a direct influence upon through either the Providence Revolving Fund or his numerous civic and volunteer roles.”
Schoettle has led the Providence Revolving Fund since 1983, “transforming the organization from a small historic preservation loan fund to a $12-million community development fund,” the group added.
Since the 1980s, the Revolving Fund has invested more than $14 million in the West Broadway and Elmwood neighborhoods by buying and redeveloping 63 abandoned houses for affordable homeownership, and by making 470 loans to property owners to restore homes.
In 2003, Schoettle negotiated a $7.8-million investment with the Rhode Island Foundation to establish a dedicated loan fund for Downtown Providence, PRF noted. Since then, “the Downcity Fund has invested over $16 million to redevelop 24 underutilized buildings, leveraging $155 million in additional financing and stimulating the revitalization of downtown.”
Under Schoettle’s leadership, the Revolving Fund has also “consulted on 140 historic and low-income housing tax credit projects totaling over $350 million in re-investment in historic buildings in Rhode Island.”
Schoettle’s efforts were seen in “the financing and renovation of 22 of the historic houses surrounding the Dexter Training Ground; the redevelopment of a failed HUD project on Adelaide Avenue which resulted in the restoration of 11 properties for affordable homeownership; the development of 39 artist residences at Monohasset Mill; the financing and development of 12 buildings which revitalized Luongo Square; and renovation of several buildings on Westminster Street by the West Broadway Neighborhood Association, including their headquarters in an old gas station,” according to PRF.
“Restored buildings in downtown Providence funded by the PRF include AS220′s Empire Street and Mercantile Block, the Peerless Lofts, Saki’s Pizza on Weybosset, the Providence G, and the Dean Hotel,” while more recent efforts include “the redevelopment of the Almy Street School on the west side of Providence; the current restoration underway of the Kendrick-Prentice-Tirocchi House, aka the ‘Wedding Cake House’ on Broadway; and the Case-Meade, Union Trust, and Woolworth Buildings on Dorrance.”
Schoettle plans to continue serving on the Providence Historic District Commission and the Downtown Design Review Committee.
“The Revolving Fund has been very much a part of me for more than half of my life. I can’t imagine doing anything else that could be so gratifying and important,” he said. “It has given me the opportunity to work with diverse groups of people to try different approaches and accomplish the historic preservation of difficult buildings to revitalize neighborhoods.”
The search for a new executive director is under way, and a celebratory tribute to Schoettle is planned for later this year.
Courtesy of Providence Journal
Posted Oct 11, 2017 at 12:01 AM
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — For families with household incomes below $50,000, the improving housing market in 2016 meant rising prices, and fewer homes and apartments they can afford to rent or buy, according to a new report from HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University.
The report found that in 2016, only two communities, Central Falls and Providence (not counting the East Side) offered “homes for sale that fit a household budget of under $50,000.”
For renters, there was no municipality in the state where the average cost of a two-bedroom rental apartment was affordable on a household income of $30,934, the median income for Rhode Island renters.
Even for renters earning less than $50,000, there were just six communities where the average rent price was “affordable:” Central Falls, Cranston, East Providence, Pawtucket, Providence (without the East Side) and Woonsocket.
Housing is deemed “affordable” if housing costs consume no more than 30 percent of a household’s gross income.
“Simply put, Rhode Island needs more housing,” said Barbara Fields, executive director of Rhode Island Housing. “The real estate market is booming right now, and that means housing prices are rising — which puts pressure on families who are already struggling to get by. The good news is that we have already begun taking steps to increase production, and the $50 million housing bond that passed last year is a start.”
As the “affordability gap” grew, there was also a jump in the number of foreclosures last year. There were 1,561 foreclosure deeds issued in the Ocean State in 2016, an increase of 32 percent compared with 2015, according to the 2017 Housing Fact Book.
In addition, “Rhode Island’s rate of seriously delinquent loans is still among the highest in the United States, ranking ninth in the fourth quarter of 2016,” the report added.
The Fact Book, an annual report from HousingWorks RI, tracks affordability and other housing issues across the state. It was scheduled for release Wednesday at HousingWorks’ annual luncheon, which this year includes a morning panel discussion “offering an in-depth look at the numbers.” HousingWorks RI is a nonprofit research group that became part of Roger Williams University in 2014.
The Fact Book also tracked an increase in 2016 in building permits, which rose by 23 percent to 1,226 permits. But this level is still far below projected needs.
“As noted in the Projecting Future Housing Needs Report (2016), commissioned by Rhode Island Housing, over the next 10 years there is an anticipated need for more than 34,000 new homes,” the Fact Book added, and “demand is for more than 27,000 of those to be multifamily and able to serve households with incomes less than 80 percent of area median income ($40,400 to $68,000 for households of one to four across the state).”
But many communities still have far to go in reaching the state-mandated goal of having 10 percent of their housing stock be long-term, deed-restricted affordable housing, the report added. Just five communities have met the goal: Central Falls, Newport, New Shoreham, Providence and Woonsocket.
Communities with less than 3 percent include: Barrington (2.66), Charlestown (2.86), Exeter (2.36), Foster (2.05), Glocester (2.23), Little Compton (0.56 percent), Portsmouth (2.83), Richmond (1.89), Scituate (0.85), and West Greenwich (1.41). However, statewide, the average is up to 8.29 percent.
Rhode Island continues to have an exceptionally low homeownership rate, particularly for communities of color.
“At 60 percent, Rhode Island has the lowest rate of homeownership among the six New England states, and ranks 46th nationally,” the report added. “Across race and ethnicity, homeownership rates in Rhode Island show great disparity. White residents have a homeownership rate of 65 percent, while Latino, Black and Asian household rates are 28 percent, 31 percent and 50 percent, respectively.”
R.I. housing costs, 2016
Median house price: $239,900
Income needed to afford this: $68,065
Average two-bedroom rent: $1,288
Income needed to afford this: $51,520
SOURCE: 2017 HOUSING FACT BOOK
Posted Jan 5, 2018 at 10:26 PM
Updated Jan 5, 2018 at 10:26 PM
On Friday nights Megan Smith walks through downtown Providence looking for people who may be struggling with homelessness, addiction, poverty — or some combination of the three — to connect with.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Inside the bus station in Kennedy Plaza, Megan Smith held a grocery bag stuffed with gloves and hats. In her pocket, a stack of bus tickets and Narcan.
“The essentials of life,” she mused. “Or of some life.”
Smith works as a project manager at House of Hope, a Warwick-based outreach center for the homeless. On Friday nights, she walks through downtown Providence looking for people who may be struggling with homelessness, addiction, poverty — or some combination of the three — to connect with.
“The root of it is nonjudgmental listening, bearing witness and from that trying to tackle things at the micro and macro level,” Smith said, snow crunching beneath her boots.
But this Friday was different. With 20-mph winds barreling down Broad Street, she braced against the icy temperatures in an attempt to persuade people to go inside. Or at least accept a pair of ski gloves.
“This is the kind of night where if someone doesn’t have a safe place to be, everything else is moot,” she said. “Because they might not get a tomorrow. It’s that cold out here.”
She plodded down Broad Street with interns Sara Melucci and Andy O’Dell, checking stairways and around corners for people. It seemed the extreme cold, 12 below zero with the windchill, had driven most indoors. But not all.
Robert Souza stood in a thin coat outside the 7-Eleven on Dorrance Street, his arms wrapped around himself.
“Could any of you spare change for a bus ticket,” he asked. Smith launched into action. She procured a pair of gloves and helped Souza put them on his hands. And then handed him a bus pass, so he could get back to Riverside, where he had a place to stay.
“Oh sweetness,” he said as he slipped on the gloves. “Oh thank you. I can’t thank you enough.”
With a quick smile, Smith continued to the bus station. Inside the terminal was a swirl of chaos. Some people were trying to catch buses, some buying time in the heated station.
Mark Rossignol fell into the latter category. From her years as a caseworker, Smith recognizes nearly every straggler left in the terminal or on the street outside. But Rossignol was a new face. She sensed he needed help because of the giant backpack parked next to him.
“Good evening, sir,” she said as she approached and introduced herself. Rossignol smiled wide when presented with gloves.
“Thank you so much,” he said, while having difficulty moving his frozen hands. “It’s so painful, the cold. I can’t thank you enough.”
Rossignol shared his story — he was born in Massachusetts, and lived in Rhode Island as a child when his father, who was in the Navy, was stationed in Newport. Forty years ago, the family moved to Florida.
After a separation from his wife a few weeks ago, Rossignol said he decided to “come home.” He was met with the coldest weather he’s ever experienced.
Hesitant to go to Crossroads Rhode Island, he was waiting for a break in the weather that likely won’t reach Rhode Island until Monday. Nights at a shelter can be loud and scary, Rossignol explained. He has schizophrenia and deals with bouts of paranoia, making the shelter environment even more of a challenge, he said.
Before he even finished his tale, Smith was making phone calls. Providence Rescue Mission usually doesn’t allow people after a certain hour, but she got Rossignol in.
Elated, he bundled back up and headed to the bus stop.
Smith and the interns walked back up to Cathedral Square toward Crossroads, continuing to check each corner.
“Please don’t try to stay outside,” Smith begged anyone passing by. “Please.”
On Twitter: @jacktemp
By Sophie Kasakove / Special to The Journal
Posted Dec 6, 2017 at 11:15 PM Updated Dec 6, 2017 at 11:19 PM
CRANSTON, R.I. — On Perkins Avenue, a long row of suburban homes comes to a sudden end — instead, trees and shrubs grow freely and wild turkeys shuffle through tall grass. It’s hard to believe that it’s been only seven years since the 10 homes that used to occupy these plots were demolished.
The neighborhood is located a short distance from the Pawtuxet River. In 2010, the homes on Perkins Avenue, like many across the city and the state, were devastated by the most severe flooding to hit the region in recent memory. Instead of rebuilding these homes, prone to flooding from the Pawtuxet, some Cranston residents opted to seek higher ground.
“I had water coming in the first-floor windows over the counter and the stove, and the basement was totally filled up with seven or eight feet of water,” recalled Brian Dupont, a lifelong Cranston resident until 2010, in a phone interview. For decades, his two houses on Perkins Avenue had flooded regularly, and he’d spent years trying to pressure city and state officials to steer funding for flood response toward buying flood-prone homes from homeowners who wanted to move to less risky areas. Finally, in 2010, people started listening.
Dupont and his neighbors began holding meetings of the Pawtuxet River Flood Association in the Portuguese Club on Second Avenue. “We sent out fliers, walked the neighborhoods, did whatever we needed to do to get noticed,” Dupont recalled. “We got over a hundred people to join — we packed the room. The local news stations were down there, the Weather Channel was down there. People realized that buyouts were a good thing for everyone.”
Soon after the flood, Peter Lapolla, Cranston’s planning director, and his colleagues in city government applied for a Community Development Block Grant through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to buy and demolish the Perkins Avenue houses. “These are 40-year-old houses that we’ve seen get flooded two, three, four, five times,” Lapolla said. “They should not have been built in the first place, and it’s easier to just make them go away.”
In 2013, both of Dupont’s houses were bought out with the HUD grant. “It broke my heart, especially knowing that this would really destroy the life of the neighborhood. But we just couldn’t deal with it anymore,” Dupont said.
Many other residents leapt at the opportunity to escape from both regular flooding and costly flood insurance. Of the 32 houses eligible for a buyout, every owner was willing to accept.
But the HUD grant was only enough to purchase nine homes, a “drop in the bucket,” according to Dupont. He said many of the other homes entered foreclosure because owners could not afford to keep paying their mortgages while also paying for a place to stay while the flood damage was repaired.
Three more grants in the following years from the Federal Emergency Management Agency have allowed the city to buy a total of 21 houses, with the latest grant awarded just this year. All of these houses are “repetitive loss” properties — those designated as most prone to flooding based on FEMA’s maps.
But the reach of the program has been limited. Each time the city has applied for a grant, the process has been delayed for months by appraisal and assessment obstacles. The process is so slow, the city’s buyout program has come to a standstill. Lapolla said they’re concerned that filing too many grant applications at once will trap the requests in FEMA’s bureaucratic limbo.
And Cranston has had better luck than most cities. Since its inception, FEMA has prioritized rebuilding far above buyouts. According to a report published this summer by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental group, of the 30,000 properties registered as having the highest flood-risk in the country, only 2,601 property owners received FEMA buyout grants over the past 30 years. A couple thousand more have received assistance for mitigation measures, such as raising the structure’s foundations.
But the vast majority of aid — $5.5 billion total — has gone toward rebuilding homes after flooding, even for homes that flood repeatedly, year after year. The council has calculated that for every $100 FEMA has spent to rebuild properties through the National Flood Insurance Program, only $1.72 has been spent to help people move to less risky areas.
In Rhode Island, where more than 16,000 structures are located within FEMA’s flood plains — a number that will continue to increase as the sea level rises — this disproportionate spending has big consequences. There’s no limit to how many times a homeowner with flood insurance can receive assistance to rebuild the same property, as long as less than half of the house was damaged.
“It’s amazing how many property owners come forward with 47, 48, 49 percent damages,” Jonathan Stone, executive director of Save the Bay, said in an interview in October. “Many of these houses are getting rebuilt exactly the same after they were totaled.”
Stone added that many of these houses are coastal second homes, subsidized again and again by the general taxpayer. One of the flood insurance program’s most recent payouts in Rhode Island was $125,700 to rebuild a single severe repetitive-loss home on Warwick Cove, according to the online publication EcoRI, and confirmed by Bill Facente, a housing officer for the City of Warwick. The New York Times reported in November that one house in Spring, Texas, has been repaired with FEMA funds 19 times, for a total of $912,732 — even though the house is worth only $42,024.
The costs of rebuilding are hitting many Rhode Islanders hard. Since 2012, homeowners across the country have been legally obligated to purchase flood insurance if they live in vulnerable areas. That same year, the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act raised insurance rates in an attempt to lower FEMA’s massive debt — at that time, $25 billion.
That year, Rhode Island homeowners faced rate hikes of as much as 17 percent. While the maximum coverage for a building was $250,000, premiums for high-risk properties could be as much as $20,000 to $50,000 a year under the reform.
Pushback across the country against the rate hike impelled Congress in 2014 to pass the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act, which rolled back some of these increases by reinstating “grandfathered” rates. But the costs are still significantly higher than many Rhode Islanders signed up for when they bought their homes.
In lower-income areas of the state, these costs have left homeowners in a tough spot, struggling to make their monthly payment and unable to find a buyer willing to assume the costs. In an interview, Grover Fugate, executive director of the Coastal Resources Management Council, said a $500 increase in flood insurance can result in as much as a $10,000 reduction in a home’s market value.
Dupont now lives in Warwick and works there as a real-estate agent. He has seen firsthand the dramatic effects of flood insurance on Rhode Island’s housing market.
“I’ve had to sell homes for many, many thousands of dollars less than their true value,” he said. “When potential buyers see the flood insurance cost, they also know that [the cost of insurance] never goes down, it only goes up.”
Dupont said these costs are particularly hard on elderly homeowners living on fixed incomes, compounding Rhode Island’s severe lack of affordable housing. And it’s these already-struggling homeowners who are most likely to get stuck with high flood insurance costs. Participation in the National Flood Insurance Program is only mandatory for homeowners with a mortgage — those without can opt out. And while some elderly homeowners have paid off their mortgages, he said, many have not.
To ease the burden, some Rhode Island homeowners have been able to get their houses off of FEMA’s list of vulnerable properties by applying for a Letter of Map Amendment or by raising the foundation of their homes to make them less vulnerable to flooding. But for many Rhode Islanders, such renovations or the time-consuming process of applying for an amendment (which often involves hiring surveyors and private insurance agents) come with an upfront cost that is just as untenable as the insurance costs.
In cities such as Cranston, buyouts are a solution to this financial trap. Lapolla says dozens more Cranston residents would volunteer for one if the funds were available. Dupont agrees, recalling the frustration of his neighbors on Perkins Avenue who were denied the buyout after 2010. Most homeowners would receive $100,000 to $200,000 from the city in a buyout — which is likely more than they’d get if they sold to a buyer wary of flood insurance costs, if they could find a buyer at all.
As the National Flood Insurance Program plunges deeper into debt (following the most recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida, it exhausted its $30-billion borrowing capacity and had to get a bailout just to keep paying current claims), many politicians and environmental activists are pushing for a serious reconsideration of its structure. The flood insurance program is set to expire Friday night, and while Congress is likely to renew it, the date offers an opening to modify the program to better suit the needs of an increasingly flood-prone housing stock.
Sophie Kasakove is a senior at Brown University, where she will graduate this month. She is also a writer and editor at the College Hill Independent and a Swearer Center Storytellers Fellow.
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