Housing Report Supports Push to Approve Question 7

Published in Woonsocket Call on October 30, 2016

Earlier this year, Rhode Island Housing (RIH) released a 44 -page report detailing the Ocean State’s current and future housing needs. One thing was clear to those attending this event: over the next decade the state will need more affordable housing for its residents.

Over the last 7 months, RIH’s Executive Director Barbara Fields has crisscrossed the Ocean State calling for increased housing opportunities for working Rhode Islanders. During this period of time she has presented the study’s findings to more than a dozen civic and government groups, including AARP Rhode Island, the Providence City Council and United Way.

During the last legislative session Rhode Island housing advocates were successful in their push for the enactment of a bond initiative that would make a significant state investment in affordable housing. As part of the omnibus statewide budget package, a $50 million Housing Opportunity Bond initiative for housing programs was passed by the House and Senate chambers, ultimately to be signed into law by Governor Gina Raimondo (D) and put to voter approval on the November ballot.

With the November election fast approaching, Fields has not let her report, compiled by HousingWorks RI, a research program at Rogers Williams University, sit on a dusty shelf but is using it to push for passage of the housing bond initiatives.

RIH Releases its Comprehensive Housing Study

On April 6, Fields gathered with state housing advocacy groups at the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation to unveil RIH’s landmark housing study, Projecting Future Housing Needs. Fields warned that the state’s economic comeback must be tied to new and existing housing that stays within the financial reach of Rhode Islanders. “Today in Rhode Island, the demand for housing is high while the supply is much too low. This imbalance simply makes the cost of housing too expensive for what our residents earn. This report provides critical insight into what the future needs of Rhode Islanders will be and that information will allow us to develop a plan to address those needs,” she said.

At this event, Rhode Island Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor tied adequate housing for working Rhode Islanders as key to bringing businesses to the Ocean State. “Companies looking to expand or relocate consider how well they will be able to retain and attract their workforce, and a key part of doing so is ensuring that employees of all income levels have high quality housing opportunities,” said Pryor. “It’s vital to our state’s economic success and our quality of life that we preserve and produce high quality housing options for our residents,” he added.

The RIH report’s findings indicate that Rhode Island’s population is projected to grow between 3 and 5 percent from 2015 to 2025. Researchers warn that new housing demand will outpace population growth, and anticipate a 12 to 13 percent increase in the number of households, driven by a growing population and simultaneous decline in household size tied to both lower birth rates and an aging population. Researchers also predict housing demand will be driven by a large population growth in two demographic groups that tend to have lower incomes – namely aging baby boomers and seniors and young millennials.

According to the RIH report, cost burden problems of paying rent do not just impact older Rhode Islanders and Millennials, but have become more mainstream issues over the last ten years and now affect all income brackets. The findings found that Rhode Islanders already pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs, and that more than half of the increase in cost burden from 2000 to 2012 impacted households earning more than $57,700.

From 2000 to 2014, the researchers found that the state’s total population grew marginally at 0.11 percent, but the number of households grew by 0.28 percent. Rhode Island’s smaller household sizes are due, in part, to a larger proportion of older persons and a smaller proportion of persons of color when compared to national rates. Younger households are likely to have more people than those headed by people aged 65 and older, primarily because they are more likely to be family households with children. As this demographic shift continues, the future population will need more housing units to meet the increased household need caused by smaller household sizes typical of older householders.

Pushing for Passage of Question 7

Like Fields, Chris Hunter, campaign manager for the Yes On 7 Campaign, sees the RIH report’s findings as crucial information that voters need to know about the impending housing crisis. “As Rhode Island Housing’s recent report shows, we’re simply not creating enough new housing to meet projected population growth. At the same time we’re facing an affordability crunch as our young workers just starting their careers, families, veterans, and seniors are having a difficult time paying for housing while also making ends meet,” says Hunter.

“That’s why Question 7 and the $50 million Housing Opportunity bond is such a smart investment in housing and Rhode Island’s economy,” says Hunter, stressing that if approved by the voters the $50 million bond initiative will leverage an additional $160 million in federal and private investments.

According to Hunter, if approved, $40 million of the bond dollars will be allocated to the construction of affordable homes and apartments across Rhode Island, while the remaining $10 million will be used to help cities and towns revitalize blighted and foreclosed properties. The bond will also fund the construction of 800 affordable homes and apartments across Rhode Island and create 1,700 good paying local construction jobs.

Over 60 percent of Rhode Island voters passed housing bond initiatives in put on the ballot in 2006 ($50 million) and 2012 ($25 million), says Hunter. “Funding from these last two affordable housing bonds created 1,943 affordable units in 30 communities around the state, and leveraged more than $300 million in federal and private investment in these projects,” he says.

RIH‘s housing report has sounded the alarm, giving a stark warning to local and state officials that a housing crisis exists and will only get worse with the shifting of the state’s demographics. With the election looming, RIH’s Fields continues to push for passage on Question 7. Hunter works to mobilize his housing advocates and supporters of Question 7 to get the word out to every voter in Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns that this bond initiative must be passed. Hopefully, their message will get across to Rhode Island voters. We’ll see when the votes are counted.

For more details on Question 7, visit http://www.yeson7ri.com.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.

Time to Change how Social Security Calculates ‘COLA’

Published in Woonsocket Call on October 23, 2016

On Tuesday, September 18, the U.S. Social Security Administration announced that the nation’s 65 million Social Security beneficiaries will be automatically be paid a minuscule 0.3 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to their monthly checks in 2017. The average monthly Social Security benefit next year will be $1,360, $5 more than now.

According to AARP, 153,349 Rhode Islanders received Social Security checks as of the end of 2014. Also, 22 percent of Rhode Island retirees depend on their Social Security check for 90 percent or more of their income. That’s chump change, not a lot of money for Rhode Island retirees to buy groceries, gas, or even catch up on their bills.

The federal agency detailed other changes that we can expect, too. Beginning in 2017, the amount of your earnings subject to the Social Security tax increases from $118,500 to $127,200. It’s estimated that this tax change impacts about 12 million of the 173 million people who pay into the retirement system.

Next year’s Social Security COLA increase is the smallest in a decade and comes after no increase in 2016 (zero increases also occurred in 2010 and 2011). Seventy percent of Medicare beneficiaries are protected by a hold-harmless rule, which keeps Social Security benefit payments from decreasing because of increased Medicare Part B premiums. However, 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries (including high wage earners, those enrolled in Medicare and not yet receiving Social Security, and newly enrolled in Medicare) could see cost increases in their Medicare Part B premiums that cover their visits to doctors and hospitals. The increased premium costs will be deducted directly from their Social Security check.

Chump Change COLA Won’t Pay Bills

Responding to the federal government’s disappointing COLA announcement, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, whose Washington, DC aging group represents 37 million members, charges in a statement that one major domestic issue ignored by presidential debate moderators and one that demands attention from candidates is the future of Social Security.

“Over the last five years, Social Security COLA’s have remained small or nonexistent at 1,7 percent or lower, even though every cent can matter to beneficiaries and their families. After last year’s zero COLA, this year’s announcement doesn’t offer much help to the millions of families who depend on their Social Security benefits. As prescription prices skyrocket and Medicare premiums and other health costs increase, many older Americans have understandable concerns. Along with many groups, AARP has also asked Congress to ensure that Medicare premiums and deductibles don’t skyrocket next year,” says Jenkins.

Adds Max Richtman, President/CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), “No one can say with a straight face that providing the average senior with an additional four dollars a month will come even close to covering the true cost of living that retirees face. The average senior spends more than $5,000 a year on healthcare costs alone. A $4 Social Security COLA doesn’t even make a dent in covering rising costs for seniors.”

Richtman asserts that next year’s tiny COLA increase only continues the trend of historically low cost-of-living adjustments for retirees. “Over the past eight years, the current COLA formula has led to average increases of just over 1%, with three of those years seeing no increase at all. For the average senior, the 2017 COLA will mean an extra $4.00 per month which would barely cover the average cost of one Lipitor pill, a prescription drug frequently prescribed to seniors,” he says.

Richtman notes, “I’ve asked seniors at town hall meetings around the country how many of them think the COLA represents their true cost of living — laughter is always the response. We should move to a COLA formula that takes a more accurate measure of seniors’ expenses, which is a CPI for the elderly. The CPI-E has been in the experimental phase since 1982. It’s time to finish the job by fully funding the development of a more accurate COLA formula.”

Congress Must Legislatively Fix COLA Formula

In media releases, Rhode Island lawmakers call for tweaking how Social Security calculates Social Security COLAs.

Democratic U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who sits on the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, calls next year’s Social Security COLA increase an “insult.” He says, “For the fifth year in a row, Washington’s outdated formula has resulted in zero or next to zero cost of living adjustment for Social Security benefits. For the fifth year in a row, Rhode Island seniors will have to stretch their budgets to cover the rising cost of the basics, like food, housing, bills, and prescriptions. They didn’t bargain for this when they paid into Social Security over a lifetime of hard work. Congress needs to change the way we calculate Social Security COLAs.”

Adds, Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), “This is completely unacceptable. The method for calculating cost of living adjustments is completely broken and fails to reflect the costs of gods and services seniors buy in Rhode Island and across the country.”
The Rhode Island Congressman calls for the Republican House Leadership to seriously consider pending legislation that will ensure that cost of living adjustments reflect the goods and services Rhode Island seniors actually buy. “Speaker Ryan should immediately bring the Protecting and Preserving Social Security Act to the floor so we can replace this outdated method for calculating cost of living adjustments with a model that actually meets the needs of Rhode Island seniors,” said Cicilline.

During the last Congress, the Senate and House controlled GOP have consistently kept legislative proposals from being considered that were crafted to bring needed reforms to the nation’s Social Security and Medicare programs. A newly elected Democratic President and a Congress controlled by Democrats might just be the political fix necessary to finally do the job that is ensuring the financial long-term solvency of these two domestic entitlement programs

Rotary Gears Up to Eradicate Polio

Published in the Woonsocket Call on October 16, 2016

Just days ago, Louis A. Marciano came to St. Paul’s Church on a mission to get his fellow Pawtucket Rotarians more involved in Rotary International’s efforts to create a polio-free world. Marciano, a former Mount Pleasant High School football player, a coach, a World War 11 veteran who fought in the Pacific Theater and a Rotarian for over 44 years, came to publicize the upcoming World Polio Day on October 24 and give an update on the international service organization’s efforts to eradicate Polimyelitis (polio).

Polio is a paralyzing and potentially fatal infectious disease that still threatens children in some parts of the world. The poliovirus invades the nervous system and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours. It can strike at any age but mainly affects children under five. Polio is incurable, but completely vaccine-preventable. The infectious disease is found mostly in lower-income countries where poor sanitation and limited access to clean water facilitate the spread of the virus.

A Call for Action at
the Pawtucket Rotary Club

Marciano’s calls for assistance in raising funds to pay for polio inoculations for children and ratcheting up the awareness for Rotary’s efforts is not new. For over four decades, the former Rotary club president District 7950 Governor, has taken his fund raising campaign to end polio to 66 clubs in Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts. His efforts has received attention from his national headquarters, too. The North Providence Rotarian cherishes the Soccer Ball award “Kick Polio out of Africa” presented to him in 1998 for his efforts to eradicate Poliomyelitis

Some say that it may well “Takes a Village” to marshal the resources needed to make a world-wide impact. Over 1.2 million Rotary members belonging to 34,000 clubs world-wide work together to raise funds, advocate for government support, serve as volunteers to help immunize children, and raise awareness in their communities, said Marciano to his audience of Pawtucket Rotarians.

At the podium, the Cranston resident rattled off specifics as to why this global effort is important and is succeeding. Ending polio will save lives, is a very good investment, and most important is achievable, says Marciano.

Marciano notes, India is a prime example of one of the greatest Rotary International’s achievements in wiping out polio. “There were zero cases of polio in 2010 in India and they have been polio-free for nearly six years,” he says, noting that the World Health Organization has officially certified India polio-free in 2014. [According to Devin Thorpe in his March 15, 2014 article published in Forbes, in the 1980s there were approximately 150,000 cases of polio every year in India]

Marciano also announced the upcoming fourth annual world Polio Day event, co-hosted with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to be held on Oct. 24. The event streaming live from CDC headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, is expected to bring together more than 50,000 viewers around the world to learn from celebrities and experts about the progress to eradicate polio. For information about World Polio, go to http://www.endpolio.org.

While winding down his talk, Marciano acknowledges that there is still work to do but Rotary is moving closer to its goal of finally wiping polio from the face of the earth.

Carol Pandak, Director of Rotary’s PolioPlus program, agrees with Marciano’s assessment. “For more than 30 thirty years, Rotary has harnessed the dedication of community leaders around the world in support of polio eradication. When we started this effort, nearly 1,000 children a day were paralyzed by this disease. Today, there have been only 27 cases [Afghanistan (8); Nigeria (4); Pakistan (15)] in the whole world. Rotary remains fully committed to this important effort until every child is protected from this disease.”

From the Beginning

Rotary’s effort to eradicate polio began in 1979, with a multi-year project to immunize six million children in the Philippines. The international service organizations, “PolioPlus program, was established in 1985.

As indicated by the “plus” in PolioPlus, Rotarians also provide support for related health services, such as distributing Vitamin A and zinc tablets, providing bed nets to prevent malaria, assisting with preventative inoculations for other diseases, including measles, rubella, mumps, tuberculous, and other childhood diseases. The “plus” also means a system of advocacy and fundraising, and infrastructure and partnerships that will support the fight against infectious disease long after polio is gone.

Rotary also works closely with partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), including the World Health Organization (WHO), the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), UNICEF, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the governments of the world in this public health initiative.

Today, Rotary has given more than $1.6 billion to immunize more than two billion children against polio in 125 countries to wipe the infectious disease from the face of the earth. It is estimated that Rotary’s advocacy efforts have played a role in decisions by countries to contribute more than $7.2 billion to the effort.

Rotary’s polio initiative has also caught the attention of others. As far back as 2008, one of America’s biggest philanthropists came to the table to fight the war against polio. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that every dollar Rotary committed to polio eradication would be matched two-to-one by the Foundation up to $35 million a year through 2018. Since this Foundation began its partnership with Rotary more than $2 billion has been contributed to Rotary’s polio eradication effort.

These funds help to provide much-needed operational support, medical personnel, laboratory equipment.

Public figures and celebrities have also joined Bill & Melinda Gates as ambassadors to help educate the public about polio through public service announcements, social media and public appearances. They include: Kristen Bell and Archie Panjabi; WWE superstar John Cena; supermodel Isabeli Fontana; Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu; action movie star Jackie Chan; boxing great Manny Pacquiao; pop star Psy; golf legend Jack Nicklaus; conservationist Jane Goodall; premier violinist Itzhak Perlman; Grammy Award winners A.R. Rahman; Angelique Kidjo and Ziggy Marley; and peace advocate Queen Noor of Jordan. These ambassadors help educate the public about polio through public service announcements, social media and public appearances.

Until polio is eradicated, all countries remain at risk of outbreaks, says Marciano.

Experts say that $1.5 billion is urgently needed to sustain the polio eradication initiative. Without full funding and political will power, polio could return to previously polio-free countries, putting children at risk contracting this paralyzing disease. From every corner of the globe Rotarians are gearing up on October 24 to garner support to wipe polio out, once and for all.