Seeking a Windfall for Rhode Island’s Affordable Housing Industry

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Reading Christine Dunn’s Providence Journal article, last week, about a looming request for another $100 million of taxpayer borrowing for affordable housing, one might wonder what exactly Rhode Island Housing is.  The answer is that it’s another one of those quasi-public agencies that allow the state government to do things that it isn’t clear the state government should be doing.

The agency claims that it “is a self-sustaining public agency, which generates its own operating income, without state funding,” and official state budget documents show no revenue at all, but that’s (let’s be politic) misleading.  The state’s transparency site, for example, shows that Rhode Island Housing received $6.7 million from the state.  Sure, all but $450,000 from the Division of Planning came from “agency bonds,” but the fact that taxpayers borrowed the money on a majority vote rather than having it confiscated by representatives who are ostensibly elected doesn’t make it a separate source of revenue.

Additionally, in the federal fiscal year, the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development gave Rhode Island Housing $7.3 million.  Granted, according to its latest audit, RI Housing has revenue over $100 million, but it generally exists on public subsidies and investments enabled and backed by taxpayers.

And here it is, preparing (one suspects) to send its registered lobbyists to push another $100 million influx of taxpayer dollars, with the assistance of not-so-registered  lobbyists, like those who operate the non-profit companies (funded mainly through the state and federal governments) that will benefit from the funds and that were already pushing for this bond weeks ago.

Even if there’s nothing exactly illegal or unethical in all this, such arrangements ought to make Rhode Islanders wary.  Using public money, they subsidize their way to voter constituencies and push for more revenue.  As charitable as their work may seem, they’re interwoven with the established network of insiders and special interests who have made reform of Rhode Island just about impossible in any area and from any direction