2015-11-05 / News

Planner outlines mandated affordable housing

By L.A. Murphy

Town Planner Lisa Bryer spoke about affordable housing last week during a community forum sponsored by the Jamestown Shores Association. Although a few in the crowd opposed the idea, Bryer spoke about the history of the hotbutton topic and where the town currently stands.

“Jamestown has a long history of support for affordable housing,” Bryer said.

The meeting was held at the library on Oct. 28. Using a theme of “forward thinking,” Bryer glossed over the history of legislation, drawing attention to the 1991 state mandate that requires 10 percent of each community’s housing units to be affordable. As of today, 4.2 percent of housing units in town are considered affordable by legal standards.

“It is a very tall order,” Bryer said, referring to the 10 percent mandate. “Even if it’s not achievable, it’s a good goal. I’d like to see 20 percent.”

Jamestown is a community of single-family homes, she said, and the town has not normally encouraged multifamily dwellings or inlaw residences. Still, Jamestown stacks up better than other communities.

“We are not the worst offender,” she said.

According to Bryer, Barrington and Charlestown post percentages of less than 3 percent. Although current guidelines are encouraged, there are no “absolute” penalties for default. It’s an unfunded mandate, she said.

Bryer also spoke about the formula that defines affordable housing. A lot comes in to play, she said, but some factors are based on income bracket. Economically speaking, Bryer says “30 percent of one’s total income should provide for housing.”

Turning to socioeconomics, Bryer said diversity should be encouraged. “Diversity makes for a healthier community,” she said.

However, one audience member was not so tolerant. “I moved here because there was no public housing.” Another audience member said affordable housing would open the town to “a single mom with 20 kids” who will not get off her “rear.”

Bryer pointed out there were different levels of affordable housing, citing a few examples to offset the stereotypical references to welfare and Section 8.

Backing Bryer’s assertion, an audience member who recently benefited from affordable home ownership spoke.

“I am a great neighbor,” she said.

The woman bought her house in 2013 after she qualified to purchase the home and lease the land. She pays $25 per month toward the land, which the Church Community Housing Corporation owns and provides for 99 years as a lease with a renewal option.” She pays her taxes, the homeowner said, and has also made improvements.

Bryer said she felt it “was a myth that such housing may devalue neighboring homes as a result of such offers.” She said there are several programs that help people buy a home in the community where they work. One agency that provides help is the Church Community Housing Corporation in Newport, she said.

“Like everyone, we are still suffering from the 2008 mortgage crisis and it is hard for people to qualify these days due to accrued debt,” said Bryer.

Although advocates in town have said affordable housing can benefit teachers, firefighters and police officers who work in town, there is no preferential treatment, according to Bryer. We have to follow “fair housing laws,” she said.

It was questioned whether an increase in population would mean an increase in town workers, but there are no hard numbers, Bryer said. In a specific case, an audience member said that taxpayers will soon be paying for the fire department, which is currently a volunteer agency.

“Our volunteers are doing a great job and the town provides an excellent opportunity for recruitment and training,” Bryer replied.

Everyone agreed that the town’s limited water supply and sewage costs would be a factor if the population increased significantly due to accessory dwelling units. Once prohibited, the town now allows the units for affordable housing, family members and caregivers.

Changing demographics must also be considered, Bryer said, because there is an aging population in Jamestown as baby boomers retire and the senior population increases. Senior housing comes under the umbrella of needed affordable housing, she said, and the need for more senior housing may increase. In addition to the Federal Fair Housing Act, there is another federal challenge regarding land.

“Jamestown village is home to New England’s largest Native American Indian burial ground,” she said.

According to Bryer, exploratory digs are common during housing developments and several projects have been halted due to the barrier. Bryer also brought attention to the town’s “build-out” and the limited number of building permits. The town must meet its 10 percent mandate by the anticipated buildout, which is scheduled to occur in 2035, she said. The town also needs to look at the civic structure of its rental properties.

In order to succeed, said Bryer, the endeavor will take support from the community to get ahead of the curve. “It’s good for business,” she said.

Bryer mentioned the former Holy Ghost property at 138 Narragansett Ave. as the first time the town is considering a private forprofit housing complex with affordable housing.

“Units are units,” she said. “A condo would count the same as a single-family home towards our 10 percent.”

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