CHARLESTOWN — On Monday evening, Evelyn Smith, chair of the Charlestown Affordable Housing Commission, and Geoffrey Marchant, executive director of the Washington County Community Development Corporation (WCCDC), updated the Charlestown Town Council regarding ChurchWoods and Shannock Cottages, which are proposed elderly and low-income housing construction projects.
After months of meetings, Smith said Rhode Island Housing was still not inclined to fund Charlestown’s projects in comparison to other programs.
“We’re looking for ways to keep it alive until the financial climate improves,” said Marchant.
Smith said that that many federal programs that have stopped funding construction and have switched their focus to providing operating subsidies instead.
“We have to figure out how to make our projects more fundable,” she said.
One option Smith suggested was to implement a 4 percent tax credit program instead of a 9 percent one. She admitted that the 4 percent option would require more capital sources, such as a larger mortgage or more development money.
Town Council President Thomas Gentz interjected that the 4 percent option would require the town to provide the difference in capital.
“As I remember from last month’s meeting that was a $1 million shortfall by going from nine to four percent. So that’s a million dollars we’d have to make up in some type of financing,” Gentz said.
Nevertheless, Smith suggested the town build elderly housing at ChurchWoods, a site in the village district, using 4 percent tax credits.
“The ChurchWoods site is perhaps the best and only available site that will support elderly housing. And if you were an elderly person living in town all of your life and you were looking for a place to live out the rest of your days in your hometown, you would be comfortable being near the library, the bank, the mini-super, the post office – near the things that you’ve been around all your life. That’s the place for elderly housing,” said Smith.
She also said that linking the ChurchWoods project with Shannock Village Cottages would make it a better funding objective for investors.
“The bigger project is, the more attractive it is to investors,” she said.
However, Councilor Daniel Slattery said that the project’s bond money was not intended for construction.
“The bond was supposed to provide the initial seed money to process the grant application for funding and it had some money for acquisition funding to help buy the land for building, but it was never the intention that the town would provide money for construction,” said Slattery.
Smith said the opportunity to buy the land might disappear and that the town had a choice to make.
“We do have bond money for acquisition of land but no money for construction, so do we buy the land and wait for the funding to show up, do we buy the land and ask the people if they want to help the funding get there in order to get the housing built, or do we walk away and lose the opportunity?”
Smith suggested creating a land trust for affordable housing purposes so that the town would not lose the sites for future construction.
“Then we would be good to go when the economic climate was right,” said Smith.
Gentz said November is the deadline for purchasing ChurchWoods. The land is owned by the Episcopal Church.
Slattery said that the church would not wait for Rhode Island Housing to come through with funding.
“There’s a very real possibility the property will be used for something else. The clock is running out on these two projects,” he said.
Marchant said that he was concerned about saving the properties.
Gentz pointed out that the town had already invested in both projects.
“Everything’s gone through master plan, engineering’s been done. The town’s got $100,000 in pre-development and another $50,000 from Geoff (Marchant) and we need to think about perhaps purchasing the land but we are short by $22,691 from buying both,” he said.
Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero said that it was unclear whether the bond money could be used as Smith described.
“The first question is to see if you can use the bond funds in this manner to acquire either property or both properties, and if you can acquire them what would be the restrictions,” said Ruggiero.
As she concluded her presentation, Smith commented that doing affordable housing projects was a complicated process.
“There are two roads: one has to do with getting us to where we need to be with the housing that we need and one has to do with fixing the process and the system and making the funding available on the local, state, and federal levels,” she said.
“It’s like Alice In Wonderland – it just gets curiouser and curiouser,” she said.