R.I. Housing’s New Chief Barbara Fields: housing a key driver of economic development

When Barbara Fields was appointed this spring to serve as executive director of Rhode Island Housing, she was excited to join Governor Gina Raimondo’s economic development team.  Fields is looking forward to supporting the Governor’s agenda to lead Rhode Island’s economic comeback. 

“I love Rhode Island,” she said. “Even when I commuted to Boston every day, while working as the New England Regional Administrator for HUD, Providence remained my home.”

Fields knows that the success of Rhode Island Housing is judged by the numbers. She is quick to point out that the agency had a total impact of $375 million on the state's economy last year. There is no question, according to Fields, that Rhode Island Housing serves as an engine of economic growth for the state. 

“Housing is an important piece of any comprehensive economic development strategy,” Fields said. “Whether new construction or rehabilitation, investing in housing creates jobs and is a major driver of economic growth in Rhode Island. We use our funds to leverage private capital, attract additional investment to the state, and create jobs.” 

Fields says Governor Raimondo understands that investing in housing is a key piece of any comprehensive economic development strategy. As evidence, Fields points to a $3 million Affordable Housing Fund that Governor Raimondo included in her budget proposal and was approved by the General Assembly.

The fund is expected to finance the development and preservation of 200 to 300 affordable homes and could leverage as much as $12 million in private equity and other financing, said Fields. The associated development activity is expected to create hundreds of jobs during construction, more than $50 million in total income for Rhode Island business owners and workers, and millions in taxes and other revenue for the state and local governments.

“As Governor Raimondo’s initiatives grow our economy and jobs are added, workers will need places to live that they can afford,” Fields continued. “And the cost of living is one factor that companies are likely to consider before relocating or expanding here.” 

Fields believes that we need to build strong, livable communities – and that investments in affordable housing can bring major returns. 

“Affordable housing, vibrant neighborhoods and a thriving economy are closely related.  It's like asking if you'd rather have a heart or a liver – you need them both to thrive and grow,” she said. “Investing in housing is a smart way to build a stronger Rhode Island.”

Fields is also a realist. The task at hand – providing affordable housing – has challenges.

“We need more housing stock at all price points in Rhode Island,” said Fields. “In 2011 – the most recent year we have comprehensive housing affordability data for – nearly one half of renters in Rhode Island across all income levels paid more than 30 percent of their income for housing. When renters are burdened by housing costs, they’re not fully participating in the local economy. That’s a challenge that we need to address.”

Money too, is a challenge. 

“The federal budget is not growing, which puts more pressure on states to innovate and think creatively about how to address housing needs. Rhode Island has not kept pace with its neighboring states, but the $3 million Affordable Housing Fund that was proposed by the Governor and approved by the General Assembly this past session is a step in the right direction.”

“Based on the support we saw this year, we are optimistic that we can continue to work with the General Assembly to do even more for Rhode Islanders,” Fields added. 

Fields’ professional experiences should serve her well in this new endeavor.  Most recently, she served in President Obama’s Administration, as New England Regional Administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  In that role, Fields represented the HUD Secretary as the liaison to mayors, state and local officials, members of Congress, private and non-profit developers, public housing authorities, and the media.   Before serving as a Presidential appointee, she managed $300 million in real estate and community investments during her 20 years as the founding executive director of the Rhode Island office of Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a national leader in community development. 

“That experience, combined with the strong network from my 25 year career, will be important. Rhode Island Housing works closely with a broad range of partners in the private, non-profit, and government sectors,” she said. “My strength is bringing people together, creating a shared agenda and getting things done.”

With an over-arching goal of improving the state’s economy, Fields is confident that people from all corners of the state – from non-profit agencies to community activists to our   government leaders and elected officials – will be motivated to come together. She echoes Governor Raimondo’s call to place a high priority on growing the state’s economy. She is poised to make Rhode Island Housing a major contributor to the state’s economic comeback.  

“Rhode Island Housing is well-positioned to be part of the governor’s strategic approach,” said Fields. “We have a strong and stable credit rating on Wall Street, which means we can take advantage of the most favorable rates for our bonds and, in turn, deliver more benefits to Rhode Islanders who are seeking to rent or own a home.”

“We are committed to doing everything we can to support Governor Raimondo’s comeback agenda,” she added. “We have an outstanding team of dedicated professionals at Rhode Island Housing who are constantly trying to find new ways to contribute to the community and our State.”

Fields has also demonstrated a passion and unwavering belief in Rhode Island’s potential. She believes deeply in the capital city. It is, after all, her home.

“Providence is an incredibly livable city,” said Fields. “We have so many of the amenities of a larger city – distinctive neighborhoods, world-class universities, a thriving arts community, and excellent restaurants. At the same time, our small size encourages great partnerships. If you are passionate about making a difference, Providence is a small enough place where you can get involved and find a way to make it happen. On top of that, as a working mom, Providence is a great place to raise my kids.”