Study: RI among states with heaviest regulations on land use, zoning

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island has some of the most restrictive regulations for land development in the country, which is likely raising the cost of housing in the state, according to a recent study.

The study by Vanessa Brown Calder, a researcher at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute think tank, ranked Rhode Island as the 3rd most restrictive state for zoning regulation and the 8th most restrictive for land-use regulation.

“These constraints on land development within cities and suburbs aim to achieve various safety, environmental, and aesthetic goals,” Calder wrote. “But the regulations have also tended to reduce the supply of housing, including multifamily and low-income housing. With reduced supply, many U.S. cities suffer from housing affordability problems.”

In an email, Calder argued Rhode Island “fared poorly” in her 50-state comparison.

“Between the years of 2000 and 2010, Rhode Island generated more zoning regulation than 47 other states measured per capita. During the same period, Rhode Island generated more land-use regulation than 42 other states measured per capita,” she wrote. “This means that Rhode Island is the 3rd and 8th worst state when it comes to generating new zoning and land use regulation, respectively.”

Calder is not the first researcher to find Rhode Island, one of the densest states in the nation, regulates development heavily compared with other places. In 2007, professors at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School found the Providence metropolitan area – which also includes Bristol County, Massachusetts – is the most heavily regulated region in the country when it comes to land use. (The Boston area was second.)

Single-family construction has fallen significantly in Rhode Island over recent decades, with the number of building permits issued declining from a peak of nearly 5,000 annually in the mid-1980s to around 1,000 in recent years.

The limited supply has continued to push up housing prices, with the median price of a single-family home rising 6.3% to $255,000 in 2017, according to the Rhode Island Association of Realtors. “Our biggest problem was lack of inventory, particularly in the starter home market,” Joseph Luca, the Realtors’ president, said last week. “It seemed like properties were being sold just as soon as they were listed which made it extremely tough for buyers.”

Gov. Gina Raimondo has also taken note of the issue. The 2018-19 budget plan she proposed earlier this month includes $200,000 to create a new Technical Assistance for Municipal Zoning and Permitting Fund, which her office said would “assist communities in improving zoning regulations and land use development processes.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook