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Friday, February 18, 2011

CCA's plan for affordable housing -DIY!

The Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) showed us how they plan to resolve the town's dire shortage of affordable rental housing. Thanks to Planning Commission head Ruth Platner (one of CCA's founders) and the CCA-controlled Town Council, we will take a DIY ("Do It Yourself") approach to the issue. To that end, the Council passed two ordinances at its February 14th meeting.

Under one ordinance, approved unanimously, every single-family Charlestown home owner could (theoretically) build an affordable housing unit in their backyard.

With 4,079 single family homes in town, we'll meet our state affordable mandate in no time. After all, who wouldn't want to build a new "Income-Restricted Accessory Dwelling Unit" (I-RADU) in their backyard?

Before you begin digging up your lawn, bear in mind that there are some minor details. You must conform to the Planning Commission's concept of what a building should look like, satisfy DEM limits on water and septic, keep it under 850 square feet, and for 30 years, you will restrict rental of the apartment to qualified low-income individuals found and screened for you by a Rhode Island Housing-approved contractor. If you do all this, at some undetermined point in the future, you might even get a property tax abatement.

Planning commissar Ruth Platner told the Council the ordinance was the product of deliberations that started in 2006. Platner also told the Council that she really didn't think many I-RADUs would actually get built.

Platner said she hoped the town can get a change in state law to accomodate Charlestown's attitudes about affordable housing. This is an improvement over what was rumored to be her present affordable housing strategy: do nothing and assume the state wouldn't enforce the law.

The council also approved a second Platner housing resolution that will crack down on the plague of "accessory family dwelling units" (AFDU's). These are home expansions or out-buildings to house Grandma, your mother-in-law or grown son or daughter. Platner stated her belief there are AFDUs being illegally rented to outsiders.

Platner said Charlestown needed this ordinance because there was no way to police the use of AFDUs. Even with the ordinance, there still isn't any way to enforce compliance, but at least every will feel better because the homeowner will have to swear an oath that the AFDU is being used legally.

If you already have an AFDU, your choices are (a) get an AFDUectomy - tear it out or re-incorporate it into your home; (b) find another family member you can stick in there or (c) undergo a "Trans-DU" - apply to the town to convert your AFDU into an I-RADU.

If you want to create a new AFDU, your choices are limited. Under the new ordinance, these accessory units are limited to 300 square feet with no cooking, bathing or sleeping facilities. Of course, a new AFDU must meet town building standards and DEM sewage and water use limits.

Platner volunteered a strange bit of information to the Council. If you build a town-approved AFDU with all the restrictions against eating, showering and sleeping, nobody in town can really enforce those restrictions. Despite Platner essentially telling them that this ordinance is unenforceable and pointless, the council nonetheless approved it.

Meanwhile, Charlestown's Affordable Housing process remains a farce. Of the seven authorized positions on the town Affordable Housing Commission, only one member remains to hold the fort - Evelyn Smith - after commissioners Cathy Collete (disclosure - my spouse) and Rev. Jean Barry, director of the WARM Center - resigned in protest of the CCA-controlled council's hostility toward real solutions to the town's affordable housing needs.

Since their resignations, the town council has failed to recruit new members. The last two Commission meetings were cancelled because, with only one surviving member, the Commission can't meet quorum requirements.

That leaves affordable housing policy in the hands of Ruth Platner and her echo chamber on the Planning Commission. In later posts, we'll discuss Ms. Platner's impact on who gets to live in Charlestown.