Efforts underway to expand affordable housing options

SOUTH KINGSTOWN – As housing prices continue to climb, the possibility of young professionals and young families being able to afford the costs of living in South Kingstown moves more and more outside the realm of reality.

Over the past several years, the South Kingstown Affordable Housing Collaborative Committee has been searching for creative and inventive ways to remedy this growing problem, and a solution may now be in the pipeline. 

On Monday, the town council unanimously agreed to greenlight a property tax relief pilot program, which will hopefully incentivise private property owners to create new accessory dwelling units. 

The program allows for a 5-year tax abatement for the creation of any new accessory dwelling, according to South Kingstown Affordable Housing Collaborative Committee Chair Josh Daly, whether that unit is deed restricted or not. In the event the homeowner decides to provide the accessory dwelling unit as deed restricted housing, they will receive a 30-year exemption on the new living space. 

When the Affordable Housing Collaborative Committee talks about the need for affordable housing in southern Rhode Island, they’re not just talking about deed-restricted and low-to-moderate-income units, though, according to Daly. 

They’re also talking about what they call “lowercase a” housing affordability.

“The intention and the conversation around this property tax abatement that we’re looking at is a way we could potentially stimulate both,” Daly said. “It’s a conversation about the ‘missing middle,’ and accessory dwelling units is a means of increasing one type of that missing middle housing in our community.”

“There’s often a feeling that we’re at the whims of developers, sometimes,” he added on behalf of the committee. “We don’t have proactive tools to encourage the types of affordable housing we want to see.” 

The missing middle sits somewhere between single, detached family homes and mid-to- high-rise apartment buildings – and the term seems appropriately fitting since there doesn’t seem to be an abundance of “granny flats” – small attached or unattached units –in South Kingstown. 

Daly stressed that these measures are meant to discourage the type of housing availability South Kingstown usually provides – student rental available from fall to spring, and then summer week-to-week rentals to cater towards the beach-going tourist crowd. 

Housing affordability isn’t  just a problem for hourly wage earners, recent college graduates, up-and-coming entrepreneurs or retirees. Many Rhode Islanders are considered to be cost burdened because housing costs amount to more than 30 percent of their gross income. 

In 2019, HousingWorksRI found that more than 145,000 Rhode Island households, or nearly 37 percent, were cost burdened. 

For a minimum wage-earner working full time, an affordable apartment would cost no more than $468 a month. For a median-income household in RI, an affordable home would be no more than $1,421 a month. 

Because this is just the pilot program and no one can know for sure how it will go, the five-year abatements will only be awarded to 20 applicants per calendar year – at least to start. The program is expected to have little to no impact on the tax rolls, though in case it does, the cap threshold was set intentionally low. 

“The market experiment is designed to have a cap because we can’t tell, we can’t predict exactly how this will play out,” according to Town Manager Robert Zarnetske. 

After five years, the town will begin taxing those dwelling spaces, “unless you’ve put it into a productive, low-to-moderate-income housing use.” 

Councilwoman Deb Bergner expressed some concerns about these new accessory dwelling units  that won’t be rented out to graduate students or young professionals, and will potentially be an untaxed storage space for five years, do nothing to improve the availability of affordable housing in town. 

While someone deciding not to rent out their new unit is a possibility, according to Daly, the thinking behind this pilot program is that it will ultimately “increase the overall stock when changes arise.”

“It may allow for empty nesters to move into the accessory unit and rent out, or have their children move into the house,” he said. “It could allow for a variety of things that could overall increase the housing stock.” 

To avoid any type of “abuse” of this five-year abatement, Bergner suggested the possibility of requiring a recorded lease, though Zarnetske warned that “the more regulation we put around this, the less we have to learn from people who are doing this.” 

“If what we find is that folks are producing housing units that aren’t available to anyone, then we walk away from this and say it didn’t work, or we modify it two or three years down the road,” Zarnetske said. “If we try to put in place rules right now, without having any experience, we run the risk of having the rules crush the program.” 

In addition to greenlighting this pilot program, the town council also made revisions to the affordable housing fund, which is meant to assist the further development of affordable housing in South Kingstown. 

Going forward, the Affordable Housing Collaborative Committee and the Planning Department will work to create a rubric and set of expectations for applicants, since these limited funds are expected to be competitive. 

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