R.I. Housing Keeps Space Sustainable and Healthy

By KIERNAN DUNLOP/ecoRI News contributor

Rhode Island Housing is attracting national attention with its KeepSpace initiative. The program, which started in 2007, works to create communities with long-term sustainability by getting municipalities and developers, as well as public and private agencies, to work together to come up with the best possible developments.

The program’s executive director, Richard Godfrey, believes the initiative is one of the reasons Rhode Island has been receiving so many federal grants.

“The federal agencies really give a lot of extra points to a state which has a comprehensive holistic approach, and that’s one of the reasons we got a very large sustainable communities grant from the federal government,” Godfrey said. “A lot of federal funding is flowing to Rhode Island as a result of the fact that all of our agencies are working together.”

The project has four pilot communities — Olneyville, Pawtucket/Central Falls, Westerly and Cranston — that are laying the groundwork for a new statewide housing plan called Road Map Road Island. The communities focus on six elements: a good home, a healthy environment, strong commerce, sensible infrastructure, positive community impact, and integrated arts, culture and religion.

“Rhode Island Housing creates homes,” Godfrey said. “But that home doesn’t exist by itself, it exists as part of a community. We want to have a healthy environment so that when kids go outside to play they have a safe place.”

The initiative works on refurbishing buildings that already exist, to protect as much open space as possible. The program aims to make most buildings it refurbishes into multi-use, with a level for businesses and another residential level, so good homes and good jobs are in the same place.

Rhode Island Housing also is working with private organizations to get bicycle paths in all of its communities, which relates to the desire to make these communities walkable.

Though most of the development in these communities is still in the planning stages, the initiative has built some new homes, and created public-service activities, parks and community recreation programs. All of this work has been done with active participation of community residents with diverse backgrounds and income levels.

“They helped to shape and frame the dialogue that was happening in their community so that it was unique to them and represented their unique interests and assets,” Mary Kate Harrington, public information manager for Rhode Island Housing. “I think overall it’s been a really great initiative and it’s brought a lot of people to the table and given voice to people that maybe hadn’t really been part of a formal planning process prior to this.”

The reaction has been so positive that the KeepSpace philosophy has become central to Rhode Island Housing.

“Anything we do now is KeepSpace, even our standard tax credit development ties into this philosophy,” development director Tony A’Vant said.

Aside from making healthier communities, the initiative also saves money.  Godfrey predicts the agency can save $1 million to $2 million a year with all the organizations working together instead of separately. If all goes as planned with Road Map Rhode Island at the end of the year, KeepSpace plans to start new communities while continuing improvements on the existing ones.