House OKs bill to enable construction of ‘missing middle’ of Rhode Island’s housing market

Legislation would make 3-, 4-unit residential construction economically feasible


STATE HOUSE – The House of Representatives today unanimously approved legislation sponsored by Rep. June S. Speakman to address the “missing middle” of Rhode Island’s housing market by making three- and four-unit dwellings subject to residential building codes rather than commercial codes.

The bill (2024-H 7893A) is intended to spur construction of new small apartment buildings, such as the triple-deckers that have long been ubiquitous in many Rhode Island neighborhoods, but have not been built for decades because they have been subject to commercial building codes that make them onerously expensive.

“Buildings with three or four apartments are very different from huge office buildings, public places or 40-story apartment high rises, but they currently are governed by the same commercial building codes,” said Representative Speakman, who serves as chairwoman of the House’s Commission on Housing Affordability. “This bill addresses the needs of the missing middle in the housing market. Duplexes, triplexes and four-unit buildings are desirable and affordable for renters, while also providing homeownership opportunities for working-class Rhode Islanders who use the rental income to support the cost of their home. Our state needs this change to make multifamily housing construction possible again.”

The legislation, which now goes to the Senate, has the support of the Rhode Island Builders Association, and has been approved by the state building commissioner and the state fire marshal. It would ensure continued safety by requiring that Rhode Island’s building codes for three- and four- unit buildings adhere to standards used in many places worldwide, the International Residential Code.

Construction of these small structures according to the residential code is less expensive because the materials used are less costly, more variable and easier to assemble and use Design standards are more flexible, allowing the owners more control over the layout and aesthetics of the structure.

In addition to helping to address the state’s housing crisis, the bill could also be a significant boost for the local economy and the creation of construction jobs. While large construction firms, adept at using the commercial code, may continue to focus their efforts on larger commercial projects, small, local businesses that focus on residential construction would have new opportunities. Those businesses are more likely to be from groups that are underrepresented in the commercial construction industry, Chairwoman Speakman added.

Additionally, small multifamily buildings are most consistent with land use patterns in many Rhode Island communities, and can be constructed in already developed neighborhoods, as well as in areas zoned for higher density.

“Building codes that recognize small multifamily buildings as exactly what they are, residential construction, will go a long way in encouraging the construction of the housing we so desperately need,” said Chairwoman Speakman.



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