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Updating affordable housing

June 4, 2012

Clarke Point Condominiums in Narragansett is one of the most successful affordable housing projects upon which the town has embarked.

NARRAGANSETT—Town officials met with representatives from Horsley Witten Group, a professional and environmental services firm based in Massachusetts who was hired by the town in January to conduct the update of its Comprehensive Plan. The current Plan, drafted in 1999, details information about the town, such as housing and open-space development, land-use, and economic development, which have a direct impact on decision-making in Narragansett.

Last Wednesday, discussion was held regarding the town’s affordable housing capabilities and policies. The current Plan, last updated in 2005, identified housing affordability as one of the major challenges for the town, stating that ‘Narragansett needs to explore alternatives to provide ownership and rental housing opportunities at rates consistent with the median incomes.’

In 2004, Rhode Island established the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act (LMIHA), legislation aimed at increasing the amount of affordable housing units by creating a 10 percent threshold that municipalities had to ideally meet over a 20 year period, or submit a plan for achieving that number in the future. In Narragansett, 462 affordable housing units would need to be built to meet the 10 percent figure, according figures recently released by HousingWorksRI.

Director of Community Development provided an overview affordable housing efforts in Narragansett since 2004, as well as address specific policies which need to be looked at. The town currently has 255 low to moderate income units, or 3.58 percent of the state’s ten percent mandate.

“While we are statistically behind, I still feel we have made some serious headway, particularly for a small town,” said DeLuca. “Our Affordable Housing units are all inhabited, and we feel good that we are helping people who otherwise might have had a hard time to find housing in town to live here.”

Narragansett has developed two affordable housing complexes, one being Clarke Pointe Condominiums off of Clarke Road. Built on 3.75 acres of land purchased by the town in 2004, Clarke Point Condominiums offer 40 units which are subsidized through state and federal funds. Prices range from $140,000 to $240,000 for one and two bedroom units. All of the units have been reported by the Narragansett Housing Authority (NHA) as sold. Another comprehensive permit for a 16 unit affordable housing building has been approved as part of the Narragansett Highlands complex off of Boston Neck Road, as well.

“Narragansett Highlands was a complicated proposal, and we have been thru three iterations in the past six years,” said DeLuca. “It is a great proposal. Having a [Montessori] school in the north end that caters to children beyond Narragansett town boundaries will add flavor to the town, and the affordable housing units will add a complexion in the north end that we don’t have yet. It is a win-win.”

One of the major challenges facing Narragansett in the development of affordable housing is the absence of available land, and thus rehabilitation of existing properties into affordable units offers a better opportunity for the town to meet the state’s mandate.

“The price of land in Narragansett is the main thing, and land values are very high for trying to do this type of work,” said John Hickey, Chair of the Affordable Housing Board. “There is the realization in this town, with our demographics, that the way to increase affordable housing is to change housing into [affordable units].”

Narragansett’s Planning Board has also turned down three affordable housing proposals which were deemed to not sufficiently reflect either statistically or structurally state affordable housing standards.
“The Planning Board has been very conservative in their deliberations over the past five years with the number of additional units that they would allow in a density bonus situation for a comprehensive permit,” said DeLuca. “They have not approved every application that has come before them because of that. They are a pretty tough group.”

In February, however, the Superior Court overturned the Planning Board’s 2008 decision to deny a development application to Atlantic East, LTD, on the grounds that the affordable housing units were not ‘integrated throughout’ in its plans, a phrase in the 2004 LMIHA to which the Board gave particular credence.

“We took it seriously that the development was not fulfilling the spirit of the [2004 LMIHA], which is intended to tell us to integrate low and moderate with moderate and higher income developments and to create neighborhoods that are culturally diverse,” said DeLuca. “Yet the Superior Court felt it wasn’t a valuable comparison enough to support our decision.”

“The result of that is we learned a lesson that the ‘integration throughout’ requirement was not seen as a regulated standard by the State Housing Appeals Board, or Superior Court, which the Planning Board could impose, even though it is written in the state law,” he added.

DeLuca also touched upon items such as inclusionary zoning and the potential permission of the rehabilitation or construction of accessory apartments in order to provide greater flexibility for the town to create affordable housing units.

“[Accessory apartments] could be a great opportunity to have dwellings that are economically priced,” he added. “There is an element of the population that isn’t very easily served. From people living alone to elders who have lost a spouse and are reasonably healthy, they want to be able to live inexpensively, but in a place they feel is home and attractive to them.”

The construction or conversion of existing units into accessory apartments for the purpose of renting or purchasing at market value rates is currently unauthorized under the town’s Code of Ordinances. DeLuca, however, feels that a discussion within the full update of the Comprehensive Plan needs to explored.
“I think we need to expand the definition and applicability for the allowance of new accessory apartments,” said DeLuca.  “I am not advocating it, but I do want to debate the pros and cons with the Planning Board and the Town Council to see if there is a level of acceptability that might be achieved.”

Representatives from Horsley Witten Group will continue their review and research of the town’s Comprehensive Plan throughout the year, the entire process for which is expected to take approximately between 10 to 12 months. The public canvassing process is expected to take four to five months throughout this summer, and next February is a tentative date for the document’s completion.

A special meeting of the Planning Board will also be convened in the near future as the Horsley Witten Group continue their research.

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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