Communities are saddled with a mandate to create more affordable housing, which gives developers leverage to propose developments that trample on local zoning ordinances, only to create housing units that are not actually affordable. Does that make sense to anybody?
Although our front-page article only reflects a small portion of the concerns levied by residents during Monday night’s meeting discussing the proposed project at 119 Water St., the overwhelming consensus opposing the development illustrates a deep chasm between the town’s obligation and authentic desire to build more affordable housing, and the realities of what that state-sanctioned mandate manifests.
It is easy to dismiss the concerns of residents as simple NIMBY-ism, but to do so would be an unfair and incorrect assessment of the situation at hand. Many expressed their desire for more affordable units so people who love Warren can actually afford to live here, or stay here. It’s a win-win for everyone.
However, on display Monday night was a crystal clear example of how the state’s affordable housing strategy is inherently flawed, and how local boards and residents are the ones left to deal with the implications of that.
The Town of Warren, like most municipalities in Rhode Island, has an obligation to provide more affordable housing opportunities in order to satisfy the state’s lawful mandate that 10 percent of all housing be deemed “affordable”. It sounds great in theory, and it would be, if not for the fact that what the state deems “affordable” is anything but.
If the development at 119 Water St. were to be approved, 15 of the 17 units would be designated as affordable. What a deal for Warren, what a kindness offered by this developer, and what an opportunity for those with low incomes in need of housing, right? Except for the fact that “affordable” actually means “80 percent of the area median income (AMI)”. What does that amount to, exactly?
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the area median income of the Warren area is $99,600. This means that 80 percent of the AMI amounts to just under $80,000. Would anyone in Warren, or anywhere really, qualify a household with an income of $80,000 as the type of household that required “affordable housing”? It is a misleading attribution, at best, which all at once characterizes how outrageously expensive housing has become.
That income criteria would benefit, for example, a two-person household where one member is a young police officer, the other perhaps a teacher. Without question, these folk deserve the opportunity to afford a home in Warren (and anywhere else), but it does not address the huge percentage of people who fall below that 80 percent AMI figure — and what incentive would a developer have to provide units at 30 or 50 percent of market value rather than the minimum requirement of 80 percent?
This situation underlies the crux of the affordable housing problem in Rhode Island. Local planning boards are saddled with a mandate to create more affordable housing, which gives developers leverage to propose developments that trample on local zoning ordinances, and the desires of the people living in that area, only to create housing units that are not actually going to be affordable for the people in most dire need of housing.
Does that make sense to anybody? Is anybody happy with this? Is this really the best we can do as a state? Granted, this issue is one of immense complexity that must balance the needs of individual communities, the fiscal feasibility of housing developments, and the ability of the state to subsidize truly affordable housing, but the 119 Water St. proposal has certainly laid bare the multitude of problems associated with the current state of so-called “affordable” housing developments.