RI Foundation panel sees housing, mental health, training as best uses of $1.1 billion federal windfall

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Affordable housing and support for hard-hit communities should be top priorities for Rhode Island leaders as they spend the state’s $1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funding, according to a highly anticipated report released Tuesday.

General Assembly leaders have been awaiting the recommendations from the 15-member steering committee — which was convened by the Rhode Island Foundation in April — before they move forward on spending the federal windfall. The money must be allocated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.

“A lot of eyes are going to be on how this money is spent,” said Rhode Island Foundation President and CEO Neil Steinberg, who led the panel.

“We’ve been using the example of two specific situations we don’t want to happen,” he said. “One is, we don’t all want to sit here in five years and say, ‘What happened to that billion dollars?’ The other thing is, we don’t want to be sitting here in two years and say, ‘Why isn’t that money going out the door?'”

The steering committee proposes the state spend the lion’s share of the Rescue Plan funding in five areas: $405 million for housing; $255 million for behavioral health care; $205 million for workforce development; $100 million for small business assistance; and $50 million for “neighborhood trusts” that would support community groups in select places. An additional $50 million would go to immediate relief.

“These were big issues that predated COVID; COVID made everything worse,” Steinberg said. “And it made it particularly worse for people in the underrepresented, underserved communities.”

The foundation worked with the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC), a business-backed think tank, and the Economic Progress Institute, an advocacy group for lower-income Rhode Islanders, to flesh out the specifics of each proposal. It followed months of outreach including focus groups, community listening sessions, and a general solicitation for ideas.