2015-03-19 / Front Page

Housing board wants to hear from community

Survey inside postal edition
By Tim Riel

When all the viable land in Jamestown is developed, the state of Rhode Island wants there to be 294 affordable housing units in town.

When it comes to housing, “affordable” isn’t an ambiguous term. Federal law defines the word, and state law mandates that all cities and towns adhere to it. Although the qualifying guidelines are concise, says Town Planner Lisa Bryer, affordable housing is a complicated issue.

Now’s the hard part, according to Bryer. Mainly, there are three important questions: Who needs it? Where should it be? And in what capacity?

Those are the answers that the town is looking for, says Heather Lopes, an assistant town clerk who volunteers on the Affordable Housing Committee. That’s why every mailed copy of the Jamestown Press this week has a survey inserted.

“Getting a good, honest response is really going to be important,” says Lopes, a homeowner in town who benefited from housing subsidies. “As a committee, we can come up with 500 ideas, but if we don’t know what the community wants, it does us no good. This is the chance to tell us.”

The survey inside was constructed by students at Roger Williams University as part of a graduate program that provides pro-bono work to municipalities in return for real-world experience. The affordable housing board tweaked it, and now it’s ready for public participation.

The survey only takes five minutes, says Bryer, and she hopes for at least 500 people to complete the questionnaire. Although Bryer says 10 percent is a good return, Lopes is hoping for much more feedback.

“We don’t want to lose a valuable opinion,” she said. “We don’t want to miss a great idea.”

According to Bryer, about four of every 10 residents in town qualify for the housing program. It’s a mind-boggling number, she says, because there are still common misconceptions about affordable housing. It’s not an initiative that promotes slums, projects and Section 8 housing, but rather a way to keep police officers living in the town that they serve.

Another common misconception is that people will take advantage of the cheap housing and move to town, despite having no connection. Lopes says that’s not the case. According to a study by Rhode Island Housing, over the last two decades, people live in a particular city or town because they have family or a job in the community.

Generally, housing affordability means that a household should spend no more than 30 percent of its income on housing costs, Bryer says. For a homeowner, that includes mortgage, interest, taxes and insurance. For a renter, housing costs are rent, heat and utilities.

The survey, which is 16 questions with a short space for comments, is aimed at all members of the community, not just those interested in affordable housing. It’s about maintaining the town’s rural character, Bryer says, while reaching the state-mandated goal of 10 percent. (Currently, only 4.4 percent of Jamestown’s housing stock is considered affordable.)

The survey can be taken online at Survey Monkey. The URL is below.

For those who prefer to fill out the hard copy in this week’s Press, surveys can be dropped off at Town Hall during business hours, placed in the mailbox located in the building’s parking lot on West Street, or mailed to Town Hall, 93 Narragansett Ave., Jamestown, RI 02835. Deadline is April 13.

The committee, first and foremost, wants to know how much of a need there is for affordable housing. Are there firefighters, cooks and teachers working in town that can’t find an affordable place? Are the elderly being forced to move to Newport because of the lack of cheap apartments? Can college students afford to come back home and start a family?

Next, where should the units be located? Is the village already too crowded? Should the town buy undeveloped land to set aside for affordable housing units? Should neighborhoods be subject to more lenient zoning regulations?

Third, what kind of housing? Would members of the community want three-level apartment buildings? 20-unit condominium complexes? Or do they prefer single-family homes?

For home ownership, a person’s income must be between 50 and 80 percent of the adjusted median income. For a single person, the qualifying income in 2014 was between $25,300 and $40,450. For a two-income household, they must earn no less than $28,900, and no more than $46,200. There are qualifying numbers for homes with up to eight income earners.

Today, there are 111 affordable units in town: Sixty-six are occupied by the elderly, 20 families are renting, nine families own single family homes, and 16 are for residents with special needs. Today, says Bryer, Jamestown needs 125 more units. At full build-out, the town would need 183 more than it has today.

It’s up to the community to determine where they will be, and what they will look like.

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