What’s Newport Going To Do About Its Housing Disaster?

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Newport’s workers have been priced out of its housing market. What happens next?

Going back maybe 5-6 years, someone working in Newport’s bustling service industry could, with a little effort, find somewhere they could afford to live. Sure, if they were coming for the summer season they’d expect to pay a rate that would confiscate a considerable chunk of their considerable earnings. International workers, mostly consisting of Irish and temporary Eastern European imports, would pile into numerous bunk beds sacked to the ceiling and consider it a hostel lifestyle for the summer. However, full-time Newport employees were typically able to find somewhere they could afford to live year-round, provided that they squirrelled away a few summer nuts away for the winter.

What factors caused this?

Well, kind of a perfect storm. We noted the issues arising from homeowners using their houses as AirBnBs back in 2017. The Newport City Council responded to the issue by clamping down on short-term rentals and ensuring that the zoning rules for guest houses were being enforced. While this hardly provided a long-term solution to the issue, it lowered the flame under the local housing issue to a mid-simmer. One might occasionally catch a room for rent up on Craiglist again. Then 2020 happened.

COVID ruins everything.

One thing we learned in the months after the arrival of COVID and the responses to it by various government entities and the businesses they regulate is that it created massive changes in our lives…at a slower pace than a lot of us anticipated. There were a lot of businesses that we expected to fold in short-order…only to watch them survive for months upon months…and then collapse. During the initial shutdown in the spring of 2020, we expected that many of Newport’s hospitality workers would find work in other industries. Most ended up riding the lucrative gravy train of unemployment benefits until it came to its last stop. We’re not saying this to disparage them. They made the smart choice. Afterwards, they decided to look for alternatives to hospitality in Newport, either finding other locations and/or new industries.

One trend we failed to grasp the size of was the number of seasonal Newport residents who found themselves in WFM (Work From Home) situations and realized that rather than paying NYC or Boston rental rates so they could have a reasonable commute to the office, could simply buy or rent in Newport. Suddenly Newport workers have found themselves competing against the salaries of big-city professionals when trying to find a place to rest their weary heads.

The hated seasonal rentals.

There has been a lucrative formula for Newport landlords over the past decades. They could rent their property to Salve students from Labor Day through Memorial Day, then triple the rent for the summer months. Owners of particularly luxurious apartments could offer these abodes to War College students, but the numeric formula remained the same.

This arrangement worked for a relatively small number of Newport’s transient residents, but meant that a rather large swath of the city’s rental property remained unavailable for its year-round residents. There’s no greater nightmare for a server or bartender to have to look for a new residence when their lease is up May 25th. They’re going to be slammed with work at the same time they’re going to have to move into a place that’s going to suck up half their wages. It’s not as though looking ahead offers much benefit, as most landlords offering places in the springtime would be fools to forgo the extra summertime income for the regularity of a year-round tenant.

Worse, most of the online rental directories like Zillow don’t filter by seasonal vs year-round listings, so someone looking for a year-round has to check every reasonably priced listing only to discover that it’s only available September or October through May. Sure, this isn’t the fault of the landlords, as websites designed for national real-estate markets don’t take into account the idiosyncrasies of our resort town but this doesn’t reduce the frustration of the situation any.

Cracks in the foundation.

A recent article in the Daily News spelled out the serious labor issues that have been created by the situation. Newport’s workers are leaving because they can’t find places to live and businesses have been slow to find solutions to the problem. Many restaurants were offering high wages and even hiring bonuses this summer, yet I was in hiring processes where individuals were dismissed as candidates because they lived outside what was previously considered a reasonable commute.

The problem is that every chef, cook, dishwasher, bartender, server and busser in Newport County who wants a job already has one, if not, two. Same goes for neighboring areas. The next closest area for hospitality talent is Providence, but for those without a car, that commute gets brutal quick. Even those with personal transportation typically do whatever they can to alleviate the strain.

This worker shortage has Newport’s restaurants at the breaking point. We’re at the point now where most of a restaurant’s staff can walk out from a bad situation, comfortable in the knowledge that they’ll be hired at another job in a number of hours.

It’s readily apparent that the situation is unsustainable. Newport can’t continue to function as a resort town if its workers can’t live nearby. (Well, we can if the North End Innovation Hub figures a way to develop robots to replace everyone, but we’re not holding our breath on that one.)

A possible reprieve.

Salve Regina University has faced a lot of opposition since it proposed building new dorms to house its upperclassmen back in 2018. Altogether, the two dorms would house over 400 students. At the time, we recognized that pulling 100+ apartments worth of winter rentals out of the Newport market would be contentious, but now it could be the solution that the city needs. That’s the kind of inventory influx that could restore some equilibrium to the market.

Alternatively, we could just wait for the national economy to implode. That would put the brakes on everything life-long Newporters seem to hate…new hotels, McMansions, celebrities, traffic, tourists with money to spend, social media influencers and all the rest. We can’t help but feel that this might happen faster than it will take Salve to build the dorms, though it’s probably considered poor form to rely on massive economic failure to solve city planning problems.

Tristan Pinnock, Blast Labor Correspondent

Tristan's just this guy, ya know?