2007-02-01 / Front Page

Affordable apartments plan gets nod from council

By Dotti Farrington

The Town Council last week endorsed a recommendation by Town Planner Lisa Bryer and the town's Affordable Housing Committee to develop town-owned property at 44 Southwest Ave. into at least 12 units of affordable rental apartments.

The effort was defined as a $2 million project, with some funding coming from state and federal sources.

The location was called "almost ideal" and "terrific" in terms of its convenience to municipal and commercial services. Two potential drawbacks - finding Native American artifacts and existing wetlands on the site - were described at the council session. as "surmountable concerns."

Town employees and councilors expressed enthusiasm for reports of progress being made in achieving the housing. The town has less than half of the number of affordable housing units that the state deems necessary for the town. Town plans call for at least eight new units of affordable housing in each of the next five years.

The town also is working with at least two for-profit contractors for their possible development of affordable housing on the island.

Water-users equity

Bryer announced at the Jan. 22 meeting she had received an estimated value of the property, which is owned by the town water department. Transfer of property ownership to an affordable housing operation.would result in the full equity going to municipal water customers to offset expenses incurred by upgrading the municipal water system.

Brigid Ryan of Church Commu- nity Housing Corporation explained that a new, limited partnership with Church Community would make it the property's owner. The ownership transfer would occur as soon as arrangements are made and the transfer does not have to wait for the property to be vacated. Bryer reported that a site visit is being arranged for state and federal representatives before the end of February.

Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said he would arrange to have the property appraised to establish its the market value.

Bryer and other town officials said that funding sources for affordable housing have been shrinking in recent years. They nonetheless expressed expectations that their plans were realistic, and that the town would be able to go forward with them.

They also said that no new local funds via taxes would be needed. The town has a set aside of $50,000 in its designated housing fund and added funds are accumulated through block grant sources in recent years. Keiser told the council that the town is eligible for a share of the $50 million state affordable housing bond that voters approved in November's general election.

Bryer and her team detailed several sources of grants and tax credit programs that provide a total of about $2 million for development costs for the proposed Southwest Avenue apartments.

Rehab not new The apartments would be created by gutting the existing building, which currently contains the Town Offices, after the employees there move to the new Town Hall on Narragansett Avenue this summer. The remaining shell of the building would be moved within the property as the base for renovated housing. The project would be conducted by the Newport-based Church Community Housing Development program, which already manages other affordable housing in Jamestown.

While the town moves forward on its plans for 12 apartments, the councilors asked if even more units could be allowed and funded at the Southwest Avenue location.

Bryer said town preparations to develop affordable housing already gives all planning and zoning authority to the Planning Commission, which is committed to the concepts and evolving specifics of affordable housing on the island. She said also that the location already is in a multi-htousing district, and that no or few variances would be needed.

A few months ago, the councilors showed interest in using the property for affordable housing, but at that time assumed the ramshackle Town Offices building would be demolished to make room for new housing.

Housing developer

Ryan explained that state and federal funds favored renovating and rehabilitating existing structures. The project in Jamestown would be the seventh such undertaking since the church community did its first housing rehab 17 years ago, she said. Ryan expressed optimism that the several sources of funding for the rents here could be coordinated, and done in time to start rehab and construction as soon as the property is vacated., with opening of the apartments as early as the following summer.

The long-standing goals to develop such affordable housing here came together when Bryer and other town officials attended a state workshop on Jan. 4 for state priorities for the $50 million in state bonds overwhelmingly approved by Rhode Island voters. Most of the money will go for rental units, rather than ownership properties, they learned.

Tenant preference

Councilor Barbara Szepatowski asked about the needs of the elderly who are not able to keep up affordability of their homes. Most reports about affordable housing for Jamestown have focused on the needs of town workers and young families. Szepatowski was told that the initial open enrollment could include a priority for Jamestown applicants of all ages.

Last year

Town officials in 2006 continued work on affordable housing, thinking primarily of those who work in and for the town but cannot afford market costs of housing. The councilors and administrators steadily supported all possible work to meet what has become the state goal of 10 percent as the amount of housing units to be designated affordable in any community.

The latest effort surfaced only late last year when the council heard proposals from its committee members to designate the Town Offices site for the housing after all town departments move into their new town hall.

Before making a commitment, council members asked for data on a $50 million state fund for affordable housing efforts; and they ordered an appraisal of the property. They also asked for data on ways to distribute that value to municipal water customers, who own the property through the town water department. The town has a dimension of ownership via its position to back bonding for water improvements over the years, but the councilors agreed that all profits properly belong to the water customers, and they wanted to establish the legal documents to support that position.

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