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Collaborative, planning board look to improve affordable housing availability

SOUTH KINGSTOWN – The Affordable Housing Collaborative Committee and the South Kingstown Planning Board met last week to talk about improving the amount of affordable housing, or lack thereof, in South Kingstown. 

According to the 2018 Housing Fact Book released by HousingWorksRI on Oct. 19, only 5.6 percent of South Kingstown’s housing stock is affordable long-term rental housing. Fifty-three percent of renters are considered cost-burdened when it comes to making their monthly rent payments, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their monthly income on housing costs. 

The amount of rental homes in South Kingstown is currently at 28 percent, according to Project Planner Jeff Davis with Horsley Witten Group Inc., which has been declining consistently since 1990. 

It’s not only renters who are burdened, however, but new homeowners that may not be able to afford the monthly mortgage payments on an average $349,000 home. 

South Kingstown, like much of Rhode Island and the rest of the country, is facing a housing crisis, according to the Affordable Housing Collaborative Committee Secretary Joshua E. Daly.

“What resonates with me as a young person who grew up here, moved away and then moved back, is that in terms of thinking of that multi-generational element of what makes South Kingstown special,” Daly said. “For folks who raise kids here, do you want to be able to live in a town where your kids could move back and raise their families here?”

“And if you do want that, then we have to do certain things to make sure that’s accessible and affordable,” he added. “By not being vigilant about it, we could become this sort-of seaside retirement and vacation community.”

Preserving the special multi-generational element of the community will come from smarter planning, he said. 

Members of the committee and the planning board discussed the lack of “middle housing” at length last week, and possible solutions that may help revitalize it. 

Though Interim Planning Director Kaela Gray stressed that South Kingstown can not simply build itself out of the affordability problem and must take a multi-pronged approach to the issue, recent public surveys have shown that residents are in favor of some additional moderate growth throughout town.

Nearly 500 respondents took part in the survey, answering multiple-choice questions asking if they thought the town was moving in the right direction for housing type inclusion, or how difficult they thought it might be for different groups of people to find affordable housing here. Another portion of the survey asked whether there was room for more growth and what types of housing might be appropriate in these areas, from cottages and duplexes to multi-family buildings or walk-ups. 

In every village, though participation was selective among respondents, according to Davis and Gray, roughly 50 percent of respondents said they believed the village could see moderate growth. Though the villages of South Kingstown are all different from one another, the responses were surprisingly similar. 

Davis warned that “just because you can build these types of housing more affordably, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to be built affordably.”

“The big thing here is that I think that demonstrates how much pent-up demand there is for housing alternatives,” Davis said. “People desperately need these smaller places.”

Even small spaces are going for a premium rate in South Kingstown.

In order to start making sure the housing costs stay affordable in the future, Daly said that the town needs to acknowledge people’s fears, but also ask residents if they want to move and grow in the direction currently policies are taking them. 

Town Manager Robert Zarnetske noted that the Affordable Housing Collaborative Committee is about to send a proposal to the town council that’s “one of the most innovative housing development strategies” he’s ever seen.

“It puts power in the hands of current property owners and provides tax subsidies for folks that will be able to build on their own land and control their own destiny,” Zarnetske said. “It’s not from big developers coming to town, it’s from folks building in their own backyard. That’s huge.”

The proposal would allow property owners to build an accessory dwelling unit in their backyard or take advantage of existing accessory dwellings like a basement or above-garage living space. By providing this space, property owners would be able to take advantage of a tax abatement for several years. If the council passes the proposal as-is, those who deed restrict their accessory dwelling spaces could receive a tax abatement for the life of the deed restriction. 

The hope is to allow this in all residential zones.

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