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COMMENTARY

Old, unsafe housing across R.I. has a solution: an all hands on deck approach

A former state Senate candidate says deteriorating complexes like Canterbury Village are indicative of one of the challenges of tackling the state’s housing crisis.

Keith O’Brien, 65, a retired bus driver, owns three units at Canterbury VIllage, and lives in one of them. “They raised our condo association fees twice recently. But where’s that money going?"Alexa Gagosz/Globe Staff

At the end of October nearly 80 North Providence residents were forced out of their apartments after town officials condemned the property. The apartment complex — built in 1980 — was full of “gutted apartments” according to local fire officials, complete with ripped out walls and ceilings, water and mold damage and overall “deplorable” conditions.

The property manager — Vista Management — had neglected the property and refused to pay their bills, putting my honest, decent North Providence neighbors at risk.

But after reading about the closure of Canterbury Village, I wasn’t surprised.

During my two runs for state Senate in North Providence, I walked apartment complexes like Canterbury Village time and time again. Tales of bad property managers, unpaid bills and gross water damage are old stories to me.

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There are countless complexes like Canterbury Village throughout the area in different stages of deterioration, indicative of one of the larger challenges of tackling Rhode Island’s housing crisis.

To put it simply, Rhode Island’s homes are old, and without drastic intervention, we’ll be hearing of more Canterbury Villages soon.

According to a report released by the Boston Consulting Group in April, Rhode Island’s housing stock is older than other states, and has the highest percentage of housing units built before 1940 of all northeastern states.

Older housing stock can mean unsafe living conditions, or in drastic cases like Canterbury Village, the complete elimination of much-needed units that are condemned by local governments. The 80 people forced out of Canterbury Village had to scramble to stay with friends or family, or find other units in the surrounding area. That’s a tall task when the rental vacancy rate in Rhode Island was only 4.6 percent in 2022, according to the St. Louis Fed.

Housing conditions are also tightly linked to personal health and well-being, according to the 2023 Housing Factbook created by HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University. When housing conditions are unsafe there is increased risk of exposure to lead, poorer air quality, and overall deleterious impacts to physical health. That can then impact larger life outcomes, such as educational outcomes and job performance.

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And while older homes are a concern in North Providence, overall the state of Rhode Island has an even worse old home problem. According to Towncharts, the median building year of a North Providence home is 1971, while the median age of a Rhode Island home is 1960. Pawtucket is the most impacted community in the state, with a median home built year of 1947.

How can we fix this problem? Can our state government play a role in helping refurbish aging homes?

The answer is a resounding yes, and in the past year I’m thankful that our General Assembly has finally taken action to address this critical issue.

Lead Hazard Mitigation is now required from owners of a wide range of rental properties, and programs like Cool It Off and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, are helping refurbish and weatherize more properties.

Gov. Dan McKee also announced an investment of over $100 million in state and federal funds in May to help create new housing units throughout Rhode Island.

But while I am thankful for these shifts, I know that we can do more. A housing crisis requires an all hands on deck approach, including rental relocation assistance, as done in the city of Portland, Ore., or rent stabilization, like envisioned by local organizing group DARE. By building new housing, refurbishing old, and supporting programs to get displaced renters into safe homes, we can rebuild Rhode Island for all of us.

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Lenny Cioe is a registered nurse and former candidate for state Senate District 4 in Providence and North Providence.