Builders created housing law to override town zoning

Three cheers for the editorial comment Wednesday, Nov. 23, regarding Charlestown’s Town Council’s president Tom Gentz’s efforts to rethink the “affordable housing” statute. As it stands, this mandate is an obscenity, and it is a further one that it was ever allowed to be put into force.

I well understand why Mr. Gentz’s earlier comments in The Sun and those of The Sun itself are set in very measured tones; however, I as a citizen am under so such constraints.

This legislation, cloaking itself in the sanctimonious language of social justice, is nothing more than an effort by the R.I. Builders Association to defeat zoning and planning throughout the state, but specifically in more rural areas, ours included. The reason is simple: in rural settings there is open land. RIBAwants to build this out, not to local town planning and zoning standards — no, that would not bring sufficient profit in their eyes, but handsome enough to most — but to a “density bonus” level up to an order of magnitude 10 times greater. There is a name for this: greed. High-density human habitation has its very legitimate place: it is called cities and towns. But does that mean that rural life has no place? I, for one, don’t think so. What kind of world would that be? There is much evidence for the assertions above, but I will restrict myself to one angle lest this letter become so long as to be unpublishable. The way the law is written, a property must be subsidized by government at any level to count towards a town’s required 10-percent “affordable” housing stock. If this seems arbitrary, it is because it is. As noted in The Sun recently, there are over 900 properties in Charlestown — and this logic would apply to other towns as well — that are assessed well below the threshold to be counted as affordable. This is three times greater than the 10-percent mandate. It has been suggested by other writers to this page that most of these belong to absentees as vacation properties; this is nonsense. Charlestown has two trailer parks, as well as many folks who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads. It is an insult to brand these as rich outsiders. Especially when the prices suggested for these proposed developments’ “affordable” units are anything but: $360,000. How is someone in real housing need to afford something at that price point? These “affordable” units will be sold to the already well-to-do, the end result will be more units crammed onto the land, and there will be no effect on the woes of those currently shut out of the market.

So why was the subsidy mandate written into law by the RIBA? Easy: that is the only way a town such as Charlestown can be considered deficient in its “affordability,” and can thus be attacked. And Charlestown is under attack, again, with two proposals on deck at the moment and more sure to come unless this corruption is removed from the books. More importantly, these comments are not just about Charlestown, but every other town in the state, and indeed more broadly, about justice, integrity, clarity, transparency and much else that seem to be so lacking in the political life of this little state.

Housing and its affordability are very important issues that we as a society must address with compassion, dedication, imagination and alacrity. But turning every bit of open land left in the state into a Levittown is not the answer. That approach will impoverish us all in many ways, except those sleazy actors who put this legislation on the books in the first place.

Gabriel Warren
The writer lives in Charlestown and his letter is published here with his permission.