Too much single-family housing is not nearly a problem in Rhode Island.

Talk about housing has been all the rage in Rhode Island over the past year.  Unfortunately (and tellingly), it doesn’t seem to be a policy area in which activists, politicians, and journalists believe data ought to be front and center.  Sure, we get numbers about the effects of the problem — housing costs $X; Y number of people are homeless; it takes a middle-income family Z number of months of income to cover their housing — but nobody seems inclined to use data to understand why those conditions hold.

Folks do seem pretty confident, however, that a big part of the problem is local zoning and a reluctance to accept multi-family housing in every corner of the state.  Progressive activist and politician Cynthia Mendes made an April Fools joke about Rhode Island “remov[ing] the zoning ban on multi-family homes” to “swiftly eliminate the classist practice of single family only exclusionary zoning!”

While not as extreme, Democrat Speaker of the House Joseph Shekarchi recently unveiled a package of bills with the following explanation:

“We are experiencing a housing crisis in Rhode Island, and it is a homelessness crisis as well – our state simply does not have enough housing, and the folks at the low end of the socio-economic spectrum are feeling the brunt of it,” Democrat Shekarchi said at a State House news conference to unveil the legislation.

While such legislation tends to require a degree of parsing I haven’t done, two of the provisions would give all homeowners the right to add “accessory apartments,” whether under the roof or separate from the main house, by right, without zoning permission. This seems like a de facto ban on truly single-family housing zoning.  In any event, the implication is clearly that the state needs more density and apartments.  The legislature is fighting, in the words of Providence Journal reporter Patrick Anderson, “the dark arts used by housing-averse municipalities.”

But here’s an interesting fact I haven’t seen anybody note in the Ocean State: According to data from the U.S. Census, Rhode Island has the third-smallest percentage of housing that is single family, after New York and Massachusetts.  Only 60% of Rhode Islanders report living in such homes — making ours one of only nine states for which that number is lower than 70%.  Rhode Island, New York, and Massachusetts are all known for high housing prices, which goes pretty far toward ruling out single-family housing as the key culprit.  In fact, matching the U.S. News ranking of “The 10 States With the Most Affordable Housing” produces no observable correlation with their single-family ranks.

Iowa is #1 in affordability, but #20 in single-family home percentage.  West Virginia is #8 in affordability and has the highest percentage of single-family homes.  Affordable state #2 is Ohio, which is 29th for single-family homes.  (None of the ten most-affordable states rank lower than Ohio for single-family homes.)

One might do better to look at the percentage of land owned by government, although it is clearly not sufficiently explanatory.  Among the top 10 states for affordability, the percentage of land that isn’t privately owned averages less than 10%.  Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island average over 15%.

To the extent there’s correlation here, however, I’d suggest its probably related to some other factor.  States that are doing whatever it is that produces unaffordable housing also tend to take more land off the housing market for government purposes and suppress single-family homes, for that matter.  What that something is, I don’t specifically know, but Rhode Islanders should remember that there are two ways to make things affordable:  lower the price of those things or ensure enough opportunity that people can earn the money to afford them.  Rhode Island should focus on the latter.


Featured image by Kostiantyn Li on Unsplash.

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Rhett Hardwick
Rhett Hardwick
1 year ago

Two points. As I understand it, the population of Providence is approximately 50% of thepopulation in 1950. It would seem there should be a surplus of housing, like Vienna.

Zoning, which is newer than most would think, is Constitutional only under the “police powers” of the state to protect the public. Zoning originated with the idea of lots being large enough to provide for septic without damaging well water, or separating houses sufficiently to retard the spread of fire. So far as I know, “protecting property values” is not within the “police powers”. You may notice that in older neighborhoods (prior to 1930 +/-) multifamily is mixed with single family. So, how did single family zoning originate? I don’t know. I suspect political appeal. I note that Massachusetts has an “anti-snob zoning law” preventing wealthy towns from creating over large minimum lot sizes, to prevent the riff-raff from buying in. I once lived in Cocoanut Grove (Miami), it seemed that every other house had a rental cottage; didn’t seem to hurt things much (now crazy expensive)

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