2011-06-09 / News

Panel mulls over affordable housing for island residents

By Geoff Campbell

The Planning Commission tackled the final element of the Jamestown Comprehensive Community Plan at its June 1 meeting.

The housing section was amended in 2004 as a separate document, the result of a new state law mandating that 10 percent of housing in each municipality meet federal and state guidelines for affordable housing. The community plan definition of affordable housing states: “A household should spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs, including rent and utilities or a mortgage payment and be available to persons’ earning 80 percent of the median income or less.”

As with each of the plan’s elements, the commission carefully reviewed each page for accuracy of data and clarity of language.

The commission replaced a chart hosting the 2000 numbers for Rhode Island “limits on income for low and moderate income households” with a chart from 2010. The difference revealed a nearly 6 percent increase in the limit, according to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 2000, 80 percent of the median income for a family of four was $54,300; in 2010, it was $57,700. The corresponding spending limits on rent or mortgage payments, for that same family of four, moved from $20,350 in 2000 to $21,650 in 2010.

The housing element describes in detail Jamestown’s affordable housing needs and what will be required in order to satisfy the state statute.

More importantly, it specifically addresses the needs of the various groups who are most affected by the escalating housing prices and rental costs.

Of the people most affected, two separate groups were created. The first category includes elderly, special needs and homeless. The second includes members of “Jamestown’s working class,” defined in the community plan as town employees, which includes teachers, police, firefighters, emergency personnel, marine workers and service industry workers.

Both objective and subjective data points are used in the community plan’s housing element to highlight the need for “intergenerational continuity,” greater diversity and the potential negative outcomes of a diminishing pool of candidates for volunteer services such as firefighting.

New data, made available as part of the current review, states: “In Newport County 50 percent of the renters paid more than 30 percent of their income towards rent and 32 percent of the renters paid more than 50 percent of their income towards rent,” according to the Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy data from 2000 in combination with 2008 American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample data.

The affordable housing needs of Jamestown have been addressed by a number of agencies and groups including Bridges, Community Church Housing Corporation and East Bay Community Action Program.

The challenge is the tension created by fewer federal and state dollars, and increasing costs in the face of the immoveable state mandate, according to the commission, which engaged in a full discussion of the matter at their recent meeting.

Other obstacles raised by the commission in their discussion included population density, and water and sewer resources.

In other matters, Chairman Mike Swistak asked that Town Planner Lisa Bryer review the Shoreby Hill application for historical district status, which was integral to a recent Town Council workshop with Shoreby Hill residents. Bryer explained that there are two tracks: “The national historic district nomination and the other is local regulation of historic district and historic structures.”

Bryer explained that in the latter case a local historic commission would need to be formed and tasked with overseeing both the development of guidelines and their enforcement. Bryer reminded the group that the Town Council, after they were first approached by Shoreby Hill residents more than a year ago, delegated review of the matter to the Planning Commission.

Conversations occurred at the time and it is Bryer’s understanding that the council sought to better judge the historic value of a potential local historic district by first reviewing the results of an application. Following a successful application for a grant that funded a consultant to complete the National Register of Historic Places nomination, the nomination was submitted to the state. The state acts as the applicant finalizing the application, holding a public workshop with the Town Council, which it did on May 23, and will next host a hearing at state offices which is scheduled for this week.

Bryer said that the timetable contains a response time of six to eight weeks from the National Park Service, the government entity that oversees the National Register of Historic Places. Bryer concluded by saying that the consultant and the state believe that there is sufficient historical significance in Shoreby Hill to warrant a place on the National Register.

Swistak reminded the commission that should the nomination be approved there would be no impact on zoning as a result of the nomination.

Commissioner Duncan Pendlebury said, “It is always helpful to understand the length and breadth of what the designation means.” He suggested that if Shoreby Hill gains a historic designation, it would be appropriate for the Planning Commission be briefed in greater detail. Bryer agreed and suggested that presenters at such a briefing might include the members of the state review committee, members of another town’s historic commission and the town’s consultant on this project.

Bryer reported that the Fort Getty Workshop was, in her opinion, “a raging success.” She thanked the commission for their role at the well-attended workshop. She added that the consultants, Landworks Collaborative Inc., will continue to develop a plan based on the information gathered at the workshop and then tie it to potential revenue and likely expenses. The deadline for the final report and recommendation has been extended due to the rescheduling of the workshop several times, and the final product should be available in July, according to Bryer.

The June 15 meeting of the commission will be a workshop with the Jamestown Chamber of Commerce to discuss economic development in the town.

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