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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Charlestown Anthropology 101: The affordable housing NIMBYs

Tom Gentz's "evolutionary adjustments" would make this
affordable housing. The current assessment is $169,100,
below the purchase price considered affordable for a family
of four earning 80% of annual median income.
(photo from town tax database)
Or, The gated community without gates

Professor Linda Felaco

At the October 11, 2011, town council meeting, Town Council President Tom Gentz first proposed his "evolutionary adjustments" to the State Low and Moderate Income Housing law.
The crux of Gentz's presentation, which was short on details and long on seemingly extraneous elements like maps of the salt ponds, seemed to be that because there were condos allegedly available for sale on Route 1 for $29,000 and $59,000, Charlestown ipso facto had affordable housing. However, no mention was made of the size of these mysterious condos or whether they'd be suitable for a family of four, which typically are the intended beneficiaries of affordable housing.

Yet Gentz wanted his proposal voted on right away, despite the fact that none of his fellow council members seemed entirely sure what exactly they were voting for, so he could "fast track" legislation to submit to the state General Assembly in January. This despite Charlestown's deep and abiding suspicion of anything being fast-tracked à la Whalerock.

But after having been authorized by the town council to work with the Affordable Housing Commission to draft the legislation, Gentz showed up at the next meeting of the commission without a draft or anything more substantive than what he'd already presented at the council meeting and informed the commission that they would not be able to see the proposal until it was complete.

Why the sudden urgent need for these "evolutionary adjustments"? Why the secrecy? Why the reluctance to involve the Affordable Housing Commission, the very people tasked with insuring that Charlestown meets the requirements of the state affordable housing law? The answers to these questions became apparent when the proposal was released.

In essence, the evolutionary adjustments turned out to be a Trojan horse to sneak in a wholesale redefinition of affordable housing, one that is completely contrary to the spirit and intent of the state's affordable housing legislation. Gentz sought nothing less than to redefine as "affordable" any "housing unit [that] fall[s] below the low and moderate income home values for households of four members at 80% of [annual median income], or a current Charlestown home sales price of $216,793"—regardless of whether it was actually owned or occupied by anyone earning 80% of AMI. Meaning that if a millionaire owned five $200,000 beach bungalows, Gentz wanted them counted as five "affordable housing" units.

Why the antipathy to the very concept of affordable housing? Unlike the wind NIMBYs, who are generally unembarrassed about their total opposition to this particular form of renewable energy, affordable housing NIMBYs* as a general rule never identify themselves as such. No, it's only specific projects they oppose. Namely all of them. The reasons are usually given in coded language and generally break down as follows:
  • Affordable housing would destroy Charlestown's "rural character."
  • If Charlestown had affordable housing, poor people would move to Charlestown.
  • Or, possibly worse, young families with school-age children would move to Charlestown, meaning more taxes having to go toward Chariho school fees.
  • Affordable housing would mean greedy developers overdeveloping Charlestown. 

Let's examine these issues one by one and decode the coded language.
CCA Steering Committee members Kallie and John Jurgens's
Florida condo, currently assessed at $75,000, would be
affordable housing under Gentz's plan—
if it were actually located in Charlestown.
(photo from the Zillow realty web site)

First off, the insistence that the mere presence of lower-income people would destroy the town's "rural character" is at odds with the existence of rural poverty throughout the country—until one considers that in Charlestown parlance, rural character means "gentleman farmers" and wealthy landowners.

Secondly, the idea that affordable housing would mean a sudden influx of poor people (read "undesirable" and "crime") moving to Charlestown is implausible when one considers that according to Housing Works RI, the average private-sector wage for jobs in Charlestown is a mere $36,036 and the income required to afford an average-priced home (average home price in Charlestown being $350,000) is $95,490, a shortfall that would never be met under any affordable housing proposal. No, the more likely scenario is that construction of affordable rental units would permit young people who grew up in Charlestown to continue to live and raise their families in the town rather than having to move to where housing is more affordable and jobs pay a living wage. But rental units of course would clash with the preferred image of the town as a haven for "gentleman farmers" and wealthy landowners and vacationers.

Third, those young families with children of course are undesirable because of the legal requirement to educate the children. Apparently, Charlestown's citizens are unwilling to pay even for the education of their own grandchildren and prefer to fob the costs off on Warwick, Cranston, or Providence.

Fourth, greedy developers supposedly hover over the town like vultures waiting for any chance to swoop down and pave over the entire town. As if adding a couple of hundred housing units in such a sparsely populated, relatively large town would require paving over the salt ponds. This objection rests on the erroneous assumptions that (a) all affordable housing must be new construction and (b) all affordable housing must be built by private developers, who can only be induced to build it as part of much larger developments of mostly market-rate housing.

Other typical objections have to do with the location of specific projects. Affordable housing ideally needs to be located near shops and services, since low-income people often lack private transportation. But NIMBYs object to projects proposed on Old Post Road, which would offer proximity to these amenities, because the lack of sidewalks could be hazardous to pedestrians. Or conversely, because the elderly, who are typically beneficiaries of affordable housing, are bad drivers and would pose a menace to everyone else.

There are, however, any number of ways Charlestown could meet its affordable housing needs. The simplest would be to build a 279-unit affordable housing complex, but that's of course politically impossible. An alternative would be to allow enough smaller projects such as ChurchWoods or Shannock Village Cottages to go forward until the mandate is met.

Part of the goal could be met by either rehabbing distressed properties or offering loan assistance for qualifying people to rehab such properties themselves. Loans for rehabbing would be in keeping with the demand of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance and its wholly owned publishing arm, the Westerly Sun, that the lower classes invest sweat equity in their homes in order to be considered worthy of living in Charlestown. Though rehabbing properties, especially when septic upgrades are required, can be more expensive than building from the ground up.

The town could also crack down on illegal rentals and demand that the owners convert the units to affordable housing if they wish to continue to rent them out. This would likely not be a popular move, however.

Or, rather than put itself at the mercy of greedy developers, the town could build affordable housing itself on one or more of its little-used and poorly monitored parcels of open space. South Farm Preserve, for example, could potentially be restored as a working farm with affordable housing units, giving residents the opportunity to offset their own food costs with produce from a community garden.

One doesn't have to scratch very far below the surface to realize that meeting Charlestown's affordable housing needs doesn't require legislative changes; it requires changes in the attitude of its citizens toward affordable housing.

* "One who objects to the establishment in one's neighborhood of projects, such as incinerators, prisons, or homeless shelters, that are believed to be dangerous, unsightly, or otherwise undesirable." (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language). An acronym for "not in my back yard."

Charlestown Anthropology 101 course syllabus:

Lecture 1: The wind NIMBYs
Lecture 2: The nanny town
Lecture 3: The affordable housing NIMBYs

Reading list:
Charlestown Citizens Alliance e-mail, "Meeting Monday, Westerly Sun on Affordable Housing," September 11, 2011.

"Charlestown official pushes for change in affordable housing law," Westerly Sun, October 18, 2011.

Collette, W. "CCA attacks affordable housing—again." Progressive Charlestown, June 28, 2011. 

Collette, W. "CCA's plan for affordable housing—DIY!" Progressive Charlestown, February 18, 2011.

Collette, W. "Charlestown's need for affordable housing." Progressive Charlestown, February 24, 2011.

Collette, W. "Class War: CCA tries a little misdirection." Progressive Charlestown, March 27, 2011. 

Collette, W. "Class War in Charlestown: Affordable Housing and the CCA." Progressive Charlestown, August 14, 2011.

Collette, W. "Class War in Charlestown, Part Three: Closing the Borders." Progressive Charlestown, March 7, 2011.

Collette, W. "New report shows Charlestown lags on affordable housing." Progressive Charlestown, September 23, 2011.

Ferrio, T. "Breaking News—New Hope for Affordable Housing." Progressive Charlestown, August 5, 2011.

Ferrio, T. "Charlestown—A future child-free zone." Progressive Charlestown, March 2, 2011.

Ferrio, T. "Half the truth is not the truth." Progressive Charlestown, September 16, 2011.

Ferrio, T. "The mysterious and secret Affordable Housing changes." Progressive Charlestown, October 28, 2011.

Housing Works RI, "Affordable homes."

Housing Works RI, "2011 Fact Book."

State of RI Low and Moderate Income Housing law