2011-11-03 / Front Page

Town’s affordable housing deemed inadequate by R.I.

BY TIM RIEL

According to Geoff Cambpell, in an ideal town, the people responsible for teaching its children and protecting its streets should have the opportunity to live in the community that they help mold.

Campbell, the president of The Equity Project, said that this isn’t always the case in Jamestown, where property prices are routinely sky-high because of ideal real estate where everyone is just minutes from some of the most gorgeous views in New England.

“It’s very important to me that people who teach in our schools, volunteer with our fire department, and even manage the Jamestown Press have the opportunity to be able to afford to live in the community,” said Campbell. “All of these things are essential. We believe that a community is made more whole if everyone working in it is also living in it. They should at least have the opportunity.”

The Jamestown Equity Project is a nonprofit corporation founded by Campbell that was recently recognized by the IRS as a 501(c)3 organization, making it tax-exempt.

“It’s really exciting now that we are a legitimate nonprofit recognized by both the state and federal government,” Campbell said. Along with Campbell, the trustees of The Equity Project include his wife Michelle, Town Planner Lisa Bryer, former Town Council President David Long, former Town Council member Mary Meagher, and Sue Maden and Mary Heath of the Jamestown Historical Society.

The newly established nonprofit group will hold a public forum on Wednesday, Nov. 9, at 7 p.m. at the Jamestown Philomenian Library. The purpose of the public forum will be to inform Jamestowners of the resources available to obtain affordable housing in Jamestown. Guest speakers will include Bryer, Steve Ostiguy from the Church Com- munity Housing Corporation, and Annette Borne from Rhode Island Housing.

“What we are trying to do is raise awareness and educate residents on what they can do to help,” said Campbell. “There is a lack of awareness with affordable housing. People talk about it and sometimes don’t really understand what it means”

According to Campbell, it’s not only a benefit for the town to have more affordable housing, but it’s also state mandated. Bryer echoed the statement, saying that Rhode Island currently requires each municipality to have 10 percent of its homes constitute as affordable housing.

“Right now Jamestown is at about 4 to 5 percent,” said Bryer. “We are below the state’s requirements, so we are trying to develop more affordable housing units on the island. It can be difficult, especially with the lack of funding.”

The reasonable goal of the town, according to Bryer, is to meet state guidelines by 2035, although she said that sometimes, unforeseen circumstances can stall optimistic projects. Along with funding, Jamestown has run into other issues with recent past projects. “We’ve had three failed attempts in the last five years,” said Bryer. “Two for archeological issues, and one for funding issues.”

According to a 2008 Affordable Housing Implementation Report issued by the state Housing Resources Commission, “[Jamestown’s] most recent project was hindered because of the site’s proximity to important Native American sites.”

Also recounted in the 2008 report, there were 2,428 total housing units on the island. The number of affordable housing units reported was 103; the total “projected units needed” was 140. The percentage of affordable housing on the island following 2008 was 4.24 percent.

Today there are three affordable housing units being build, all on Swinburne Street. Church Community Housing Corporation bought the land and is currently building on it. Although three new singlefamily homes on Jamestown doesn’t seem like affordable housing, there is something known as a land lease, where the location of the home – the actual land the dwelling sits on – isn’t taken into account in the cost. Basically, a corporation like CCHC owns the land but people buying the homes don’t pay for the property underneath and around the domicile, only for the dwelling itself.

Affordable housing is defined mainly by area median income. The median family income in Jamestown in 2009 was $83,482 according to the American Community Survey put out by the U.S. Census Bureau. The average median sales price for a single-family home on the island in 2009 was $525,750. By the 30 percent guideline, only families earning more than $135,000 per year can afford a home in Jamestown. The gap is more than $50,000 per year for homebuyers.

According to the report by the HRC, the gap for renters is just as alarming. In 2008 the average annual wage for private-sector jobs in Jamestown was $32,355. Using the 30 percent guideline, affordable housing would be $809 per month for rent and utilities. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Jamestown is $1,512 – more than $700 more than “affordable” by the state’s definition. To afford an “average” apartment in Jamestown, a resident would have to make $45,680 – over $13,000 more than the average annual job on the island.

According to Jamestown’s recently revised Affordable Housing Plan provided by Bryer, the average price of a home has gone down in 2010, but the price of rent for a two-bedroom apartment has risen. The median sales price for a singlefamily home in 2010 has decreased to $450,000; the average rent has increased to $1,637.

Even though the average price of a single-family home has dropped due to the economy by $75,000, it is still an 8 percent increase from 2000. According to Bryer’s document, personal income increased statewide 32 percent from 2000 to 2009, but the median sales price of a single-family home increased 47% percent during that time.

“The rapid escalation of housing prices has made affordable homeownership and rental housing increasingly difficult to find for many Jamestown residents,” the document reads.

There is also the opportunity – along with renting typical apartments and buying homes – to have accessory apartments. These apartments would be created from structures that aren’t currently zoned to house people, like garages for example. Campbell said there have been changes made to zoning already to allow accessory apartments.

Bryer said that in order for this to happen, owners would have to make a 30-year pact with the state that the accessory apartment would stay affordable. In order to do this, she said that they have floated ideas around like tax breaks and cash incentives so that owners are more forthcoming with the idea of turning their garage into a 30-year affordable housing apartment.

Bryer added that if Jamestown doesn’t make an effort to reach its 10 percent, that the state can actually step in and OK housing development projects without the blessing of the town’s zoning and planning departments if they deny certain proposals. Developers can take their case to the Rhode Island State Housing Appeals Board to appeal the town’s decision.

The prices aren’t the only problem with affordable housing. Campbell and Bryer point to the stigma perceived by the public surrounding affordable housing. Bryer said that the term “affordable housing” brings with an implication of innercity project housing. She said it is completely false that with affordable housing comes more crime.

“This is so our kids, our parents, our friends can stay on the island even if prices continue to rise,” she said.

“There is a connotation that we believe is inaccurate in terms of ideas and expressions,” said Campbell. “There is already affordable housing in Jamestown. This is already going on, and nobody is seeing any change.”

Campbell said that it is important to get residents of Jamestown involved, which is why The Equity Project is holding its public forum. “We are making a very strong, good faith effort to get affordable housing done,” said Campbell. “The most important thing we can do right now is educate.”

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