2011-06-02 / Editorial

Fort Getty should be used for affordable housing

By Chris Crawford

Rarely does one get to sit back and look at a resource as large as Fort Getty and get a chance to think through long-term opportunities. It’s a process fraught with many competing interests, ideas and possibilities accompanied by change. And change for many is something to be avoided with every conceivable mental roadblock one can fabricate.

As chairman of the Affordable Housing Committee in Jamestown, I would not be fulfilling my responsibility if I didn’t raise the possibility, maybe the only chance the town will ever have, of building a seaside community of affordable housing for our seniors and community volunteers at Fort Getty.

Why Fort Getty? This could very well be the only opportunity the island has to comply with the law which requires that 10 percent of our housing meet affordable housing requirements, as measured against the median prices on the island. What is the single biggest barrier to creating affordable housing here in Jamestown? Land Costs – 45 percent of a total homes cost is tied up in the cost of land.

The demand for affordable housing in Jamestown is growing, even if it is invisible to many along the shore. The average private-sector job on Jamestown pays $34,320, while the average two-bedroom house rents for $1,637, requiring a household income of $65,480.

The own a home, the median price hovers near the top in the state, in large measure due to all of the open land we have preserved bit by bit over the decades. Jamestown’s population is the oldest per-capita age group of any town or city in Rhode Island, and our population is declining due to affordability. Our kids cannot afford to come back.

Can the argument be made that the town’s wage level should never be used when it is so easy for people to commute to better paying jobs? Possibly, but I am not sure I want my ambulance driver commuting from Warwick when the alarm goes off.

The term “affordable housing” is a misnomer to many that harkens back to the projects that were a dismal social experiment nationwide. I want to assure you, we are not talking housing projects in any such vein. Today, affordable housing has a different nomenclature. The new projects being erected around the state in towns like Barrington and East Greenwich are spectacular. We would have an opportunity to build a community that architects would come to study.

Akin to Block Island, where the average single-family home exceeds $1 million, one of the developments is of Cape Cod-style homes sprinkled over nine acres that were put on the market for $199,000 each. The neighborhood drew 155 lottery applications. To be eligible, applicants had to have lived on the island for at least four years and had to be firsttime homebuyers. They pay real estate taxes just as any homeowner does. Block Island has met their 10 percent legal threshold; Jamestown is 140 housing units away from reaching ours.

I would propose for discussion for Fort Getty a green community of two-bedroom homes designed and prioritized for our community volunteers and seniors.

This Nantucket-style waterfront community of quarter-acre lots would be designed to create a sense of neighborhood from the ground up with jaw-dropping water views from every verandah and porch. There would be open vistas, walking paths, vegetable gardens, rebuilt boat launches, and architecturally appropriate lighting, while still maintaining acres of open land.

Picture narrow brick-lined streets of New England-flavored two-bedroom homes with gas fireplaces and panoramic ocean views from flower accented wide-brimmed porches. The homes like many of the newer affordable housing communities from Barrington to East Greenwich can be architecturally stunning while taking advantage of many federal subsidies for energy efficiencies.

Instead of a season-limiting pavilion, why not put out to bid what has to be one of the most spectacular sites in all of Rhode Island for a full-service, year-round, revenueproducing restaurant with a giant outside deck on the beach that the neighborhood could walk to and the town could rent out for weddings?

Why not build a totally new fire department headquarters that accommodates today’s complicated trucks, with eight to 10 architecturally appropriate housing units for the young volunteer firefighters who need affordable housing and could be starting up a fire truck within 30 seconds of a call. The EMS building downtown could become in-town parking, or one of a dozen other practical and revenue-producing options. We have a blank canvas here to dream beyond what has been; we should at least talk about it.

The author is the chairman of the Jamestown Affordable Housing Committee.

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