Rhode Island towns call for flexibility in affordable housing mandate

Rhode Island towns call for flexibility in affordable housing mandate

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PROVIDENCE — As the Special Legislative Commission to Study the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act prepares to submit its recommendations to the state legislature at the end of May, rural towns are calling for greater flexibility in the application of the law, and homebuilders are demanding more streamlined municipal permitting.

Those disparate views are evident in the diverse perspectives of commission members who may not be able to reach a consensus on what to recommend to lawmakers.

The 14-member study commission, which was first formed in 2013 and reconstituted in 2016, includes legislators, municipal officials, affordable housing advocates, and building industry representatives. Its mandate is to examine and recommend changes to the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act of 2004 which requires that all towns in Rhode Island achieve a 10 percent low-and moderate-income housing level in their housing stocks

Defining affordable housing

The commission’s most recent meeting was Feb. 6. The night before, at a Hopkinton Town Council meeting, councilor Barbara Capalbo, who has been tracking property sales in her town since 2015, said she believed that Hopkinton had already achieved the 10 percent affordable housing goal because of the availability of existing housing stock.

“The state of Rhode Island demands that we have 10 percent of our properties reserved for low and moderate [income] families, and I believe that we have done that, without using codicils of 30 years or more,” she said.

For the state to consider a property affordable, it must have received a state or federal housing subsidy and include a 30-year deed restriction, but Capalbo and others believe that price should also determine whether housing is affordable.

“Even if you go from sales of 2017, 38 percent of our properties sold are low income, and of these, 64 percent are under $150,000,” Capalbo said.

Commission member Melina Lodge, also the executive director of the Housing Network of Rhode Island, a group of 20 community development corporations that create affordable housing units throughout the state, said the challenge is balancing the needs of the entire state with the unique qualities and limitations of the towns.

“The intent of the commission is not figuring out just what works for one municipality, how to move affordable housing forward in just one town, but how do we have a statewide approach,” she said. “It has to be a win-win for everybody. It’s not just a one-sided conversation, so I think we’re going to continue to talk to towns and hear feedback from them - what are their needs, what are their constraints…Every town is special and unique in their own way, and I think it’s important to preserve that piece while having a larger agenda in mind about what are housing needs for folks that are really struggling.”

Questioning the magic number

Two local officials, state Rep. Blake Filippi, R-Charlestown, and Richmond Town Planner Juliana Berry, also sit on the commission. Filippi believes both the state’s 10 percent affordable housing goal and its affordable criteria should be reexamined.

“The 10 percent, is it the real number that we need for low and moderate income housing? And what we count as low to moderate income housing is just not fair,” he said. “If you go to a town like Hopkinton and you actually take the assessments that have been done by licensed assessors to get the real value of homes, it’s probably at or more than Charlestown in terms of house prices that a low to moderate income person can afford,” he said.

Charlestown’s liaison to the commission, Town Council member Denise Rhodes, did not respond to a request for comment.

The infrastructure issue

Scott Wolf, executive director of Grow Smart Rhode Island, an organization that promotes sustainable and equitable economic growth, questioned the 10 percent figure, but from the perspective of infrastructure, an issue that many rural towns have repeatedly cited as an obstacle to creating more affordable housing.

“The other thing that we’re open to is potentially having the 10 percent threshold of affordable units be a regional requirement rather than a town by town requirement,” he said. “The reason that we’re at least open to that is, we want to see affordable housing in areas that are served by transit wherever possible and that have services ideally within walking distance of the building. In a lot of parts of Hopkinton and Richmond, you can’t find that kind of a set-up.”

John Marcantonio, executive director of the Rhode Island Homebuilders Association, said state grants should be available to municipalities for certain public infrastructure upgrades which would in turn remove some of the obstacles to greater housing density in rural towns. Legislation that would create such a program is already under consideration. Senate Bill 2239, introduced on Feb. 1, would establish an infrastructure grant program within the Department of Administration.

“We’ve been working in tandem with the Planning Committee [the State Planning Council] and with municipalities to try to help them with a grant program that we can hopefully get through the Senate and the House this year that will be funded, that will allow cities and towns direct access to funding to put water and sewer where they want to put it, and build out their plans,” he said. 

An affordable housing crisis?

The homebuilding industry argues that Rhode Island’s affordable housing crisis is adversely impacting the economy of the entire state.

“Rhode Island certainly and unequivocally has a housing affordability problem,” Marcantonio said. “We’ve been producing a little under 1,000 units per year and the state’s own studies show that we should be averaging 3,000 plus just to keep an equilibrium in the marketplace. You see prices rising and data coming from the realtors’ association shows that prices continue to skyrocket, and that’s because of the lack of supply that’s being built.”

Marcantonio also noted that the towns’ zoning restrictions have effectively rendered them gated communities.

“By and large, our towns tend to act like gated communities,” he said. “Very large lot requirements, the indirect fence there by most communities, as far as affordability and zoning and all those barriers to housing. What we should be doing is collectively working together with the communities to build their [comprehensive] plans. Their plans should be solving the problems. Right now, the plans are not solving the problems.”

Berry said the large lot size requirements in rural towns like Richmond were usually a consequence of building constraints on the lots, not a desire to prevent the construction of affordable housing.

“I disagree with that being the intention of zoning requiring larger lot size,” she said. “Frankly, the reason most towns have, in certain areas, large lot size requirements, is because of the physical constraints of the land. If you’ve got land that’s so wet and so ledgy and with extreme slopes and you’ve got small lot size requirements, when you subtract all that unbuildable land out of a one-acre piece or a half-acre piece, you might not be left with anything."

Including existing housing in a town’s affordable housing stock is a proposal that Marcantonio dismissed as unrealistic.

“I look at the value proposition of the existing stock and weigh that against housing stocks that exist in other areas of the country,” he said. “It’s pretty easy to see why people leave the northeast. Rhode Island might have the second or third or even, in some cities and towns, the oldest housing stock in the country, full of asbestos and mold and antiquated insulation systems and energy uses. That stuff can’t be what we rely on to attract and keep the next generation of people.”

With just two or three meetings remaining before the commission’s work concludes, Filippi said he wasn’t sure he would be able to support its final report.

“If it’s something I can’t feel comfortable voting for, the recommendations, I, and, I think, a couple of other commission members will put a minority report out there, almost like a dissent,” he said. “I don’t know what we are going to come up with, but if we don’t deal with what the real number is…and if we don’t deal with what the determination of affordable is, then frankly, I can’t get behind any of the report until they resolve those two issues.”




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