by Katie Mulvaney
PROVIDENCE —The COVID pandemic drove home the reality that housing and health are inextricably linked. It also heightened and highlighted an already-dire affordable housing crisis in Rhode Island.
It was against that backdrop that nearly 100 housing advocates and federal, state and local leaders came to a backyard on Webster Avenue on Friday to celebrate the completion of 30 newly renovated apartments for formerly homeless families. The units are located in 14 buildings across the city.
“We persevered through a global pandemic, never losing a day of work,” said Michelle Wilcox, chief operating officer at Crossroads Rhode Island, who served as master of ceremonies.
The project is the fruit of a partnership between Crossroads Rhode Island, RIHousing and the Providence Housing Authority. It comes as the number of families experiencing homelessness in Rhode Island has grown by 12% over the last year, according to advocates. They attribute the increase to the financial hardship brought on by the pandemic, combined with an existing shortage statewide of housing that families with low incomes can afford.
“Affordable housing is absolutely essential,” said U.S. Sen.Jack Reed, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee who in 2008 created the National Housing Trust Fund, which helped pay for the project.
“You plant the seeds and good things happen,” said Gov. Dan McKee, who vowed along with Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos to make housing a priority.
“Many of us take housing for granted. We shouldn’t. ... For the children, these apartments represent hope,” McKee said.
For 40-year-old Lititia Hall, securing one of the apartments on Updike Street meant everything. She had been living in her mother’s basement with no running water after being released from prison for fraud. Secure housing gave her a place to raise two of her four children, Jeanette, 3, and Kelldrin, 15.
Even more than that, it allowed her to become a foster parent to Kelldrin after having her parental rights terminated years ago.
“Everything that’s missing from the puzzle fits together now,” said Hall, who continues to maintain a relationship with her other two children through open adoptions.
Hall is working on getting her GED through classes at Crossroads. She plans to get her driver’s license for the first time and buy a car she will park in the driveway at her duplex. She is three years in recovery from a substance-use disorder. She has stayed out of prison after spending years behind bars.
“I know today, I am not my past,” Hall said Friday as she toured the three-story Webster Avenue building that would soon provide housing for three other families.
“If I could, I would wake and kiss the ground every day. Blessed. Blessed to have housing,” Hall said.
The project was paid for by a combination of federal and state funding. A total of $4 million came from the federal Housing Trust Fund and the Capital Magnet Fund programs. Another $2.5 million came through the state bond program Building Homes RI. The Preservation Revitalization Deferred Loan Program, which provides funding to address capital repairs, covered $627,378.
The extensive renovations included new interiors, appliances, insulation and exterior renovations as well as handicap accessibility. New electrical systems,boilers and windows were installed, with an eye to energy efficiency, according to Christine West, of KITE Architects.
“It was pretty much a complete makeover,” said West, the lead architect.
The work began shortly before the pandemic. “We motored right on through,” West said.
The scent of paint still hung in the air at 267 Webster Ave., with perfectly shined wood floors and bright new appliances in each of the three apartments. Light flowed in from generous windows, some that looked out to the street.
The community-service element set the project apart for West.
“These are our neighbors. It’s not just a kitchen, but it’s a kitchen for someone who needs it,” she said. TRAC Builders served as the general contractor.
The homes are intended to provide permanent, safe, affordable housing for families with very low incomes who were homeless or at risk of homelessness. In addition, case management and other services will be available as needed to help the families excel. The apartments will be affordable to households earning less than 30%of area median income, or $29,950 for a family of four.
Crossroads Family Housing secured extra support from the Providence Housing Authority to ensure tenants’ rent will not exceed 30% of their income.The Housing Authority has provided vouchers that will subsidize 19 of the units in the project through its Section 8 funding for 20 years.
The housing advocates and leaders promised that the project, billed as Crossroads Family Housing, is just a start.“
This is such an exciting model for what we can do,” Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza said.
“Let’s build more housing,” Reed said to cheers.
Article available at www.providencejournal.com