R.I. housing secretary’s report may not be compliant with state law

It was the second time in recent months that the housing secretary had failed to complete critical reports that are expected to be used to combat the state’s housing crisis and are required of him by law. The housing department’s organizational plan, due Nov. 1, 2022, was submitted more than two weeks late after Saal requested and was granted an extension, but the 22-page plan was still missing large sections.

“I accept responsibility for my department’s deadlines,” Saal told the Globe on Jan. 5. “It is a fact that the department of housing is new and short-staffed, but the members of our team are working hard to manage an unprecedented amount of contracts and better respond to the needs of Rhode Islanders.”

The reports were required under the same statute that created Saal’s role. As housing secretary, Saal earns nearly $191,000 annually.

The integrated housing report was expected to include approximately 35 different data points about housing in the state, including data on building permits, and the number of housing units available based on income level and unit type per city and town in Rhode Island. It was also supposed to include recommendations from Saal to resolve any issues that provide “an impediment to the development of housing, including specific data and evidence in support of the recommendation.”

It also lacked Saal’s signature and had errors, such as incorrect links for some citations to national reports, incorrect date ranges for data, and partial data sets.

Shekarchi, who sponsored the legislation that elevated Saal’s position to a cabinet-level role, told the Globe through a spokesman late Friday he was “disappointed” that Saal’s first full integrated housing report was incomplete.

“At first glance, the report does not appear to be compliant with the statute,” said Larry Berman, a spokesman for Shekarchi.

The report required data from entities such as the US Census and HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University. It did not require the housing department to generate its own data independently. Though some of the missing information, such as the number of units based on income level, is publicly available on the Rhode Island Housing website, Saal wrote in his report that there was “insufficient data.”

Berman said Shekarchi plans to meet with Saal in the coming weeks to “better understand what prevented compliance” and to establish a timeline for Saal to provide the missing data. Shekarchi also plans to schedule a meeting of the House Municipal Government and Housing Committee to “thoroughly review” both of Saal’s recently submitted reports.

A similar report was submitted in December 2021 by then-commerce secretary Stefan Pryor, with input from Saal, who was the incoming deputy secretary of commerce for housing at the time. The report asked for much of the same data as the integrated housing report. That report was compiled with help from Camoin Associates, which specializes in data-driven reports for government agencies, economic development organizations, and nonprofits. But Saal did not hire a consultant to help with the 2022 report. Instead, his spokesman, Chris Raia, said staff from the housing department and members of the Executive Office of Commerce “led the effort to pull updated data tables” from the US Census.

Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee joined Amos House and housing and community partners to kick off a statewide landlord challenge on May 10, 2022, in an effort to provide permanent housing for Rhode Islanders who have been experiencing homelessness and staying in hotel shelters since the onset of the pandemic. From left to right: Josh Saal, Deputy Secretary of Commerce for Housing; Goveror McKee; Lt. Governor Sabina Matos; Robert Shumeyko, Regional Director, Boston Office of Community Planning & Development, Office of Housing & Community Development (HUD) MARK STOCKWELL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Saal was officially appointed in January 2022 as the deputy secretary of commerce for housing, and was elevated to a cabinet-level position on July 1, 2022. The organizational plan he was supposed to submit in order to begin building his newly created department of housing was due Nov. 1, 2022. He requested an extension from the Speaker’s office ahead of the deadline, which was granted, and he filed the plan until Nov. 17, 2022.

The 22-page organizational plan was supposed to include a review, analysis, and assessment of functions related to housing of all state departments, quasi-public agencies, boards, and commissions. Saal was expected, according to the statute, to include in the report input from “each department, agency, board, and commission” regarding his proposal for structuring the housing department. The statute also required Saal to include the advantages and disadvantages of “each option and recommendations relating to the functions and structure of the new department of housing” from stakeholders.

Saal told the Globe Jan. 5 that he received input from “all state departments, agencies, boards and commissions involved in housing.”

According to an Oct. 4, 2022, email obtained by the Globe through a public records request, Saal asked some department heads and cabinet-level secretaries to fill out a 15-question Google Form survey about housing functions that exist in their agencies, budgets, and whether moving any housing functions to his department would be “detrimental” for other agencies. In the same email, he asked leaders from each department to “make time” to speak to his staff about the questions the following week.

But the version of the plan submitted to the General Assembly in November 2022 did not appear to include significant input from other departments, agencies, boards, or commissions.

In an email to the Globe on Jan. 5, Saal said the Housing Resources Commission (or HRC) chair “was involved in the creation of the plan, and briefed on the plan before it was submitted to the General Assembly.”

Kyle Bennett, the director of policy and equity at the United Way of Rhode Island, who serves as the commission’s chair, told the Globe he has had regularly scheduled meetings with Saal to discuss the HRC and department of housing.

“Secretary Saal shared at a high level many of the components of his plan for the department,” said Bennett. “However, I did not read or review the plan before it was submitted.”

‘This is the final plan.’

During the Dec. 20, 2022, HRC meeting, commission members pressed Saal about why he had not followed the statute and why he omitted input from stakeholders. Saal defended his organizational plan, saying it “clearly lays out who we spoke with.”

When the vice-chair of the HRC, Housing Network of Rhode Island executive director Melina Lodge, referenced the requirements of the statute, Saal did not name the agencies he consulted, saying: “You [are] asking what groups I discussed this with? It was a lot of agencies.”

“As the secretary of housing, we made some decisions… You may have a different vision for the department of housing,” Saal told HRC members. “I was hired as secretary of housing and this is what I am putting forward.”

The organizational plan did, however, offer suggestions for restructuring many agencies and boards, putting some of them — including the HRC and the Housing Resources Commission’s Continuum of Care board — under Saal’s control as part of the housing department. The plan also suggested that Saal be named the chair of other entities, like Rhode Island Housing’s Board of Commissioners.

During the meeting, Saal called the plan a “draft” that was still being worked on. When HRC members noted it had already been submitted to lawmakers, Saal called it “a final version.”

“This is the final plan. I was hired to do this plan and it was intentional the way we went about it,” said Saal, without offering details. He told the HRC members that if they still had concerns with his plan, they should “take it up” with the legislature and asked that additional questions or criticism be presented in a closed, executive session — which would be a violation of Rhode Island’s Open Meetings laws.

When asked in early January, Saal told the Globe that “no updates” have been made to the organizational plan since it was submitted in November 2022. “If there is required information the General Assembly requests, the Department of Housing will address it,” said Saal.

Saal is still expected to put together a statewide housing plan. But so far it is unclear what that report’s goals are, who would help Saal put it together, and when it might be completed. In late November 2022, Saal told the Globe that the plan could come out in “early 2023.” Less than two weeks later, in December 2022, he told the Globe he would be issuing a request for proposals for a consultant to help him create the plan, which he said would come “sometime in 2023.” That request for proposals was submitted Dec. 29, 2022, with a deadline of Feb. 2.

In a December 2022 interview, Saal indicated that he may try to avoid holding a public commenting period while developing the statewide plan, even though the plan would likely impact all cities and towns in Rhode Island.

“I’ve found with different voices in the room that sometimes we don’t always agree,” said Saal. “For something this big, with so many people, then you get 1,000 voices and you get a plan with 1,000 points. That actually doesn’t do anything to get us to the hard decisions that we need to make.”


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.