2011-11-17 / News

Panel educates islanders about affordable living


Thirty-three years ago Mary Meagher inherited $5,000 and bought a house on Union Street for $38,000. Ten years later she turned that house into a three-condominium unit and watched her investments and property value increase 30 times its original worth. Meagher says she was simply lucky.

Now, in 2011, the prices of a home in Jamestown have caused many of its municipal workers and business owners to find a home away from work, not on the island.

“I work for the town where pretty soon the government will be run by people who don’t live here,” Town Planner Lisa Bryer said.

The Equity Project (TEP) is a newly recognized 501(c)3 nonprofi t corporation formed to fund and support public and private efforts to create sufficient affordable housing opportunities on the island. The volunteer group is made up of Chairman Geoff Campbell and six members: Bryer, Meagher, Sue Maden, David Long, Mary Heath and Michelle Campbell. The group works to make sure Jamestowners who work on the island can actually live on it.

Affordable housing is a residence that has a price within the means of a household on a moderate income or less. To be affordable, the costs of a house, including principal, taxes, interest and insurance, constitute no more than 30 percent of the total household income for a household with less than 120 percent of the median income in the area surrounding it.

On Nov. 9, TEP held a public forum at the Jamestown Philomenian Library to inform Jamestowners of resources available to foster affordable housing.

According to the Jamestown Zoning Ordinance, under the village and special development district, there are two provisions specifically designed to allow and encourage affordable housing. Bryer explained that one provision allows accessory dwelling units to be classified as affordable housing if it is permanently affordable for a 30-year period and eligible to someone with a low to moderate income. An accessory dwelling unit is a secondary apartment with 600 square feet or less living space and it has the same owner and utility connections as a primary building.

The second provision designates the Jamestown village area as a special development district for affordable housing. This enables the subdivision of existing lots that are not otherwise eligible for subdivision as long as they are used for affordable housing. Due to the increased density needed to make affordable housing work in Jamestown with its high land costs, the town chose the village area served by public water and sewer as the special development district. The planning department has found that there are numerous lots in the village area that support subdivision.

Bryer also explained that the Zoning Ordinance allows “comprehensive permits” for approval of the development of low- and moderate-income housing. This provision allows an applicant proposing to build low- or moderateincome housing to streamline the process and submit a single application for a permit to build that housing rather than apply separately to planning and zoning and other town boards.

As the town works to increase affordable housing, it strives to have at least 10 percent of its homes qualify as affordable housing to meet the state mandate for municipalities. Jamestown currently has about 4 to 5 percent of its homes classified as affordable housing. Bryer said the town aims to meet state guidelines by 2035.

According to a 2008 Affordable Housing Implementation Report issued by the state, Jamestown has 103 affordable housing units. The total projected units needed was 140.

Assistant Director of Intergovernmental Relations for Rhode Island Housing Annette Bourne commended Jamestown for actually looking at what the housing needs are rather than simply looking at how to get to the 10 percent mandate.

As TEP aims to support affordable housing in the community to provide equal opportunities for people, Bourne said she believes the combination of affordable housing and housing for low- to moderate-income levels can make up the kind of equity TEP strives for.

Stephen Ostiguy, the executive director of the Church Community Housing Corporation, told of what the group is doing to provide affordable housing on a regional level in Newport County. CCHC, a nonprofit organization, began in 1969 when local citizens met to address the lack of decent, affordable housing in Newport County. In the nearly 40 years since then, CCHC has built over 1,000 homes and repaired another 2,000. It has also integrated neighborhood revitalization, energy efficiency and ecologically conscious building materials into development plans. CCHC aims to help low- and mod- erate-income persons in Newport County to live in safe, decent, affordable housing and neighborhoods. It provides housing through rental, home ownership, rehabilitation, preservation or by other means, without discrimination or prejudice.

Ostiguy said the CCHC provides a home buyer training program designed to guide families through the home buying process. The eight-week session covers topics related to owning a home, obtaining a mortgage, and maintaining good credit.

Ostiguy said the reality in Rhode Island is much worse than the projected numbers for people’s incomes and the houses they can afford. He stated the average wage earner is $33,000 per year in the state. In Jamestown, he said a household needs three full-time wage earners to buy a house for $300,000.

“Over the years, we’ve been trying to address the housing issue,” Ostiguy said. “Jamestown is probably one of the more difficult places to live in.”

Jamestown’s proximity to Native American sites is one reason why developing projects on the island is so difficult.

Right now CCHC is working on building three affordable housing units on Swinburne Street. CCHC will provide land leases, in which the actual land the house is on is not included in the cost and the people buying the new homes will only have to pay for the dwelling, not the entire property.

CCHC is also developing the Bayside Terrace Apartments. Members of the public hoped that when these affordable apartments are ready that Jamestown employees would be given preference in the selection of residents. Ostiguy said it is likely that only Jamestowners will apply anyway since many other Rhode Islanders do not have connections on the island or want to cross the bridge. Bourne said this is a possibility.

“It wouldn’t just be local preference for municipal workers but for anyone who works on the island,” Bourne said. “I would encourage you to broaden it, but you can have a local preference pool.”

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