LETTER: Affordable Housing Law: A Proposal for Analysis of Performance

This letter to the editor is reprinted here with permission of the author
It is not uncommon for government to create a new program, and then fail to follow up to see whether it is working as intended.  The Affordable Housing Law (in legal parlance, the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act; RI 45-53) is one such example.  There has been much controversy over implementation of the affordable housing law in rural areas, because it is driven by state-imposed high-density housing contrary to local zoning.  Is performance of the law adequate compensation for the loss of local control over zoning and land management?

Under the authority granted to the Charlestown Planning Commission by the Town Charter (Section C-174A), I proposed last January that the Commission authorize a study that asks basic questions about performance of the law since its implementation in 2004.  Has the law served to provide housing to meet local needs, or has it recruited new residents to town?  Has the law provided more housing for families in distress, than for those financially able to purchase unsubsidized housing at market rates (the law allows for subsidized housing to households with above average income)?  What fraction of approved developments has been dedicated to providing affordable housing (only 25% of imposed high-density projects need be “affordable”; the rest can be whatever the developer speculates the unsubsidized market will bear)?  What has been the demand for home ownership vs rental housing at the various eligible income brackets under the law?  Are vacancies in new affordable-housing construction an indicator of low demand, or a measure of poor quality, unsuitable location, or some other cause for rejection?  These questions need to be answered in order to allocate resources to best meet housing needs of highest priority, especially during times of constrained government spending.

To improve statistical weight of the findings, I proposed that we include data gathered from the surrounding towns of Hopkinton, Richmond, and Exeter.  All four towns are rural in character and outside the urban services boundary; they are largely dependent on individual water sources and independent septic systems.

After several false starts, owing to competition for oversight within the Town Hall, we finally appear ready to begin by hiring an appropriately trained intern to gather and organize the required data from town and state records.  Our intent is to make a preliminary report available to all interested parties for comment before a final report is drafted for submission to the Town Council.  Courtesy copies will be provided to the other towns participating in the study.  Until we address the questions above, we can not have a meaningful discussion of the merits of the affordable housing law, or the policies it spawned.

George Tremblay

The writer is a member of the Charlestown Planning Commission.