Housing costs a major barrier, Kids Count says
By Sean Flynn
Since the average cost of a twobedroom apartment in this city is $1,468 a month, a family of three living at the poverty level of $19,096 annually would have to devote 88 percent of its household income to rent, according to Kids Count Rhode Island.
Kids Count representatives came to the Newport Public Library on Tuesday morning to present Newport data contained in its 2016 Factbook, an annual publication now in its 22nd year.
More than 75 representatives of social service agencies, community leaders and policymakers gathered for the “Data in Your Backyard” forum that featured improvements and declines in economic well-being, education, health, child welfare and safety for children and families in the city.
Stephanie Geller, a Kids Count policy analyst, presented key findings during a PowerPoint presentation, highlighted some of the Newport results and answered questions from the audience in the library's program room.
A recognized cost burden exists for families when more than 30 percent of their monthly income is spent on housing. The percentage of renters in the state who spent more than that on their rent increased from 47 percent in 2006 to 53 percent in 2014.
In 2015, a worker would have to earn $23.81 an hour and work 40 hours a week year-round to be able to afford the average rent in the state of $1,238 without a cost burden. That hourly wage is more than two-and-a-half times the 2015 minimum wage of $9 per hour.
Since housing in Newport is more expensive than the state average, many families here have been hit by high housing costs. School Department staff have identified 53 children in the schools who are home-less, according to figures included in Geller's presentation.
The city has an inventory of 17 percent low- to moderate-income housing stock that is subsidized by the federal government, which is above the 10 percent affordable housing mandated by state law. However, there still are long waiting lists for those units.
“Although we exceeded the state goal, we are still not meeting needs,” said Rhonda Mitchell, executive director of the Housing Authority of Newport. “To think about reducing affordable housing in the city would be a travesty.”
A goal of the city's comprehensive land use plan, which is now being drafted, is: “Maintain an inventory of (low- to moderate-income) housing stock sufficient to at least meet the state-mandated 10 percent threshold, particularly as it relates to serving elderly and citizens with physical and/ or intellectual disabilities.”
Members of the Newport County Citizens to End Homelessness asked this week that the goal be reworded so the city is committed to maintaining and preserving the 17 percent of housing stock now deemed affordable.
“The term 'affordable housing' gets a bad reputation when people think of it only as federally subsidized housing,” said Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport. “It's housing that allows young, hard-working families to move forward, without having to pay a very large percentage of their income on housing.”
“Vote yes on Question 7,” Mitchell said to applause from the audience.
That referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot will ask voters to approve or reject $50 million in housing opportunity bonds that would be issued by the state.
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Kids Count policy analyst Stephanie Geller speaks Tuesday at the Newport Public Library.
Dave Hansen | Staff photographer
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Of that total, $40 million in bonds would provide funding for the construction and rehabilitation of more than 800 affordable homeownership and rental housing units across the state. The remaining $10 million would help cities and towns revitalize blighted and foreclosed properties.
The bonds would create 1,700 good-paying jobs for the state's building and construction workers, help local employers attract and retain a strong workforce, and leverage $160 million in federal and private investment in Rhode Island communities, according to advocates of the bond such as Housing Network of Rhode Island.
A similar $50 million Housing Opportunity Bond initiative passed a statewide ballot vote in 2006, and a $25 million bond passed in 2012.
Discussion of housing was just a sliver of the more than two hours of discussion during the forum that concluded shortly after noon.
Although the most recent data from the U.S. Census show that Newport has a child poverty rate of 16.4 percent, data from schools indicate that a large proportion of Newport's children are from low-income families, meaning they are eligible for free and reduced-price meals at school.
As of October 2015, 64 percent of Newport students were low-income according to that measure. Only Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence and Woonsocket have higher percentages of low-income children in their public schools, according to KidsCount.
There have been improvements in outcomes for infants.
The teen birth rate is on the decline across the nation, in this state and in Newport. The teen birth rate is measured as the number of births per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19. The most recent available teen birth rate in Newport from 2014 was 16.5 births per 1,000 girls, compared to 24.5 per 1,000 girls five years before, Geller said.
The presentation concluded with a formal launch of the Newport Grade-Level Reading Campaign, a community-wide effort to ensure that all Newport children are reading on grade level by the end of third grade. Superintendent Colleen Burns Jermain joined Sharon Carter, director of the Newport Partnership for Families, in outlining the initiative.
Achieving reading proficiency by the end of third grade is a critical milestone for children, Jermain and Carter said. A fundamental shift occurs by the end of third grade: Children begin to move from learning to read, to reading to learn.
Students who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than their proficient peers, according to the presentation. While interventions implemented before third grade have high rates of success, interventions after third grade are much less effective.
Once children fall behind after the third grade, most of them never catch up to their grade-level peers, according to educators.
Sharon Carter of the Newport Partnership for Families speaks during a Kids Count presentation Tuesday at the Newport Public Library.
Dave Hansen | Staff photographer