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Friday, September 16, 2011

Half the Truth is Not the Truth

I got a CCA email on last Sunday about Affordable Housing. It quoted a Westerly Sun editorial and stated that it reflects CCA's views.

But it leaves out so many facts relevant to Charlestown's situation that the real objective seems transparent - confuse the issue while doing as much as possible to bar lower income people from Charlestown.

First, here is the relevant part of the CCA email:

Westerly Sun on Affordable Housing - In yesterday's Westerly Sun, there was an editorial about affordable housing. The paper's views reflect the views of the CCA Steering Committee. The Sun said that affordable housing:

means something different entirely. It often means a new house. And I don't get that. Getting assistance is a huge benfit for the recipient, but getting a brand new home at a reduced rate isn't necessarily the best way to go about this. Who didn't need to add a little sweat equity when they started?

Many towns are now arguing that they should be allowed to count existing homes that meet the affordable sale or rental price toward that 10 percent goal. This approach makes sense. Adding brand new housing to the inventory when perfectly fine "fixer uppers" exist in abundance doesn't.

We suggest that an amendment be included that provides incentives for individuals - and developers - to bring existing homes in need of repair up to code as long as they agree to set the selling price in the affordable range. The buyer would be responsible for the rest of the work, providing sweat equity as their share of the deal for getting a house they wouldn't otherwise be able to afford. This would be the ultimate in recycling.

Thank you Westerly Sun for agreeing with CCA. To read the entire editorial--pick up the newspaper at your newstand. 


Here are my points in response. Since CCA says the editorial reflects their views I treat it all as CCA's statement. (In this article I use the capitalized Affordable to mean a housing unit that meets the requirements of the law.)

  • The CCA statement about getting a brand new home at a reduced rate is purposefully ignoring the preferred approach and what is happening today. Two current projects, both with a good chance of success, will result in Affordable rental units for working families (Shannock Village Cottages on Shannock Road) and seniors (ChurchWoods on Old Post Road). Rental units are the ones most needed for the less rich among us, rather than units for purchase.
  • Despite what you are led to believe, the CCA proposal is expressly allowed by the law today and requires no amendments. Why does the statement talk about an amendment? What they probably want, but don't state, is to eliminate the requirement that the housing unit will remain affordable for years to come. The objective of the State is to ensure an inventory of affordable units over time. Affordable units are often created with some incentives (density exemptions, grants, low interest rates, etc.) and the State doesn't want that to just turn into a fast profit for someone. That is why Affordable units that meet the state requirement include a deed agreement to stay within the affordable price range in the future.
  • Especially in vacation destinations such as Charlestown, we have all seen the trend of converting small cottages into three-story mansions worth a million or more. Perhaps the CCA doesn't want that price restriction so the purchase of a cheap cottage by a local person or a rich Florida resident will count as an Affordable housing unit. Once that unit is purchased there seems to be nothing to stop him or her, under the CCA proposal, to convert it into a 3,000 square foot million dollar plus home. So is that still an Affordable housing unit?
  • I enthusiastically support the idea of taking existing housing stock, vacant, foreclosed or otherwise, and turning it into Affordable Housing and I feel confident that my Democratic Town Committee colleagues do also. Of course, that is already allowed but we don't see anyone rushing to do it. And the inventory of vacant and foreclosed homes in Charlestown is actually negligible
  • I am especially repulsed by new construction proposals that only have a small percentage of Affordable units. We certainly cannot stomach the resulting development in Charlestown to meet the State mandate with construction that is 10% Affordable. If I were King I would decree that new construction Affordable housing be 100% Affordable, like the two projects I mention above.
  • Speaking of sweat equity we already have a well established system that relies on that  - Habitat for Humanity. Where I lived previously I volunteered for Habitat for 3 years and, during that time, worked on building and rehabbing at least 8 homes. Why can't we see that level of Habitat activity here? South County Habitat has produced 9 housing units in the last 10 years. 
Many of our readers know that I volunteer for the fire district. Several of my fellow fire district members lament the inability to find a place they can afford to rent in Charlestown and some of them live outside of Charlestown, reducing their ability to respond to fire calls. So this isn't an abstract issue to me.

In summary, I see a lot of opportunity to increase the stock of affordable housing without overdeveloping Charlestown through careful application of the existing means available to us. I also firmly believe that there is a need to provide this for both working age families and seniors. I also firmly believe that the objections are often transparently rooted in bias related to income or other demographics.

Author: Tom Ferrio
Disclosure: my wife is on the Affordable Housing Commission but did not write this article.