The Affordable Housing quagmire gets deeper

The following opinion piece appeared in the Providence Journal, the Westerly Sun, and the Chariho Times and is reprinted here with permission of the authors Thomas B. Gentz and George C. Tremblay. Mr. Gentz is president, and Mr. Trembley a member, of the Charlestown Town Council.

As most towns struggle to meet whimsical expectations of the law for construction of affordable housing (AH), proposals from developers arouse strong opposition. Rural communities are hostile to the creation of subdivisions in pockets of rural landscape that would be illegal, were it not for provisions in the law that allow violation of zoning and long-range planning.

Charlestown took the failing statewide AH initiative into its own hands. We asked our residents for financial help. The town passed a $1,000,000 bond issue to promote construction of AH. It is the only town in RI to do so. Some of that money was used to rescue a failed AH project that had languished under RI Housing (the overseer of AH in RI) for some 5 years. Owing to inexcusable neglect, one of those houses had been lost to foreclosure at taxpayer expense. The town then identified properties better suited to construction of AH and arranged for the purchase of two parcels in its growth centers. Charlestown authorized an internal study of the performance of AH law and learned that most of the AH projects in the immediate region had failed. Evidence pointed to a greater need for rental units for low-income households and housing for the elderly, not unmarketable McMansions for households earning above average income.

With the help of a not-for-profit developer, Charlestown got the green light from RI Housing to proceed with a plan for construction of 11 low-income family units in Shannock Village and 24 units of low-income elderly housing in Charlestown’s Traditional Village. These proposals went through public hearings with little opposition, and were approved by the town’s Planning Commission.

After the expenditure of some $100,000 of taxpayers’ money to develop these proposals with the encouragement of RI Housing, which is a necessary partner to raising the $8 million needed to complete the projects, we are informed that RI Housing is no longer interested.

This betrayal of effort is a disgrace and should serve as a caution to any community entertaining cooperation with RI Housing. The AH law and its overseer need close examination for failed policies and mismanagement. Towns deserve better for their investment of effort, and the public deserves better for its investment of hard-earned dollars to help those in need.

Thomas B. Gentz, Charlestown Town Council President
George C. Tremblay, Charlestown Town Council Member