NARRAGANSETT — Speaking to a legislative commission earlier this month, Narragansett Town Planner Michael DeLuca described some of the challenges Narragansett and other Washington County communities are facing in attempting to supply more affordable housing. 

DeLuca, representing eight towns in Washington County, explained a variety of issues with the current Rhode Island Low and Moderate Income Housing Act, passed in 2004, which mandates that 10 percent of a municipality’s housing stock be designated as affordable housing. Currently, the state only grants that designation to deed-restricted units on government-subsidized properties. In testimony to the Special Legislative Commission to Study the Low to Moderate Income Housing Act, a group chaired by state Rep. Shelby Maldonado (D-Dist. 56, Central Falls) with members including Rep. Blake Filippi (R-Dist. 36, Block Island, Charlestown, Westerly, South Kingstown), DeLuca argued certain properties that are not currently designated as affordable housing under the mandate, such as in-law apartments, apartments rented with Section 8 vouchers and properties with “natural” affordability, should be included. 

“The presence of several forms of ‘natural’ affordability is not accounted for anywhere in the current law,” said DeLuca. “As noted by Glocester, the existence of dozens of mobile homes in defined neighborhoods that sell well below the average cost of a subsidized permanent home should be rightly acknowledged and accepted in each town’s qualified inventory.” 

“Additionally, virtually every town has small enclaves of lower valued permanent homes making up the neighborhoods that younger and/or lower income families gravitate to for a first home,” DeLuca continued.  “Those homes that are not deed-restricted are assessed (and sell) at a value below the Town’s ‘affordable’ base price, could likewise be considered for counting in the Town’s affordable inventory.”

In addition to Narragansett, DeLuca was also representing eight other communities in Washington County including Richmond, North Kingstown, South Kingstown, Hopkinton, Charlestown, Westerly and Exeter. 

“I wanted to start by saying the planners that I represent here are all active planners who have struggled mightily to accommodate housing law over the years, but every community we represent is attempting, and strongly attempting, to meet that mandate,” said DeLuca. “We are not objecting to the mandate, we want to get there.” 

According to state records from March of this year, the Town of Narragansett overall boasts a total of 7,156 housing units, meaning roughly 715 total units of designated affordable housing would be needed to bring the town into compliance with the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act - 10 percent of the town’s total housing stock. Narragansett currently designates only 268 housing units as affordable, or 3.75 percent of its total housing stock, meaning the town needs roughly 450 more units of affordable housing to be in compliance.

“Narragansett needs over 500 units [of affordable housing] and we issue about 40 or 50 permits a year total,” he said. “You don’t have to be a mathematician to figure out how that doesn’t work.” 

DeLuca stated that number would shrink if the commission were to enact policies aligning with his testimony. 

“We’ve had, on average, between 150 and 170 Section 8 vouchers in our town year after year and we can’t even count an average number,” he said. “One thing I’ve advocated for is 75 percent of those to count [toward the affordable housing mandate goal]. The thing about vouchers is people can move with it - they own the voucher. The state refuses to count them for that reason, but my answer is we have statistics that show that most people that do get a place in Narragansett stay.” 

“Then there’s naturally affordable housing - housing that rents in the same range as the state would consider acceptable in a low-moderate income apartment that is deed-restricted,” said DeLuca. “We have non-deed-restricted market housing that’s renting in the same range - we can’t count that.”

DeLuca estimated the total affordable housing stock in Narragansett would more than double if the law were changed to reflect his suggestions. He added building new affordable housing in communities such as Narragansett was difficult, due to various factors. 

“In communities such as Narragansett, there’s very little dry land remaining,” said DeLuca. “The land not being built on is largely wet or near wetlands, and doesn’t have access to utilities.” 

DeLuca further advocated for the mandate to take into account the different factors of rural communities versus urban ones.

The commission is expected to issue a report on the topic soon.

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