ChurchWoods Senior Housing Closer to Reality

The following letter appeared in local newspapers and is reprinted here with permission of the author Tom Gentz. Mr. Gentz is President of the Charlestown Town Council.

Tom Gentz

At the September Town Council meeting, the Charlestown Town Council took a major step forward in the slow march toward making the ChurchWoods affordable housing project a reality. The ChurchWoods project consists of 24 units for senior citizens located on land next to the Episcopal Church on Route 1A (Post Road) in Charlestown. We requested that the Town Solicitor work with the Charlestown Affordable Housing Commission (AHC) and the Washington County Community Development Corporation (WCCDC) to prepare a Funding Agreement for the purchase of the ChurchWoods site from the Episcopal Diocese, with money in the Town’s Affordable Housing Bond fund.

Our Planning Commission and AHC had documented the need to fill the void in affordable housing for seniors in Charlestown: currently, absolutely none is available to our residents. When I introduced The Rev. Michael Tessman to Geoff Marchant of WCCDC in March 2011, we brainstormed what we thought would be a straightforward project that would combine the values of the Episcopal Diocese and a need in the community. The ChurchWoods senior housing project is the outcome of our discussions. In October 2012, on the advice from Rhode Island Housing (RIH) that ChurchWoods was eligible for federal funding, the Town authorized initiative payments from its bond fund for the development of formal plans.

However, the project was blocked by a sudden withdrawal of our eligibility through RIH in February 2013, after local funds had already been expended. Loss of eligibility stopped negotiations for purchasing the site from the Episcopal Diocese. Federal, state, and local taxpayers had every right to expect accountability and sound management for their dollars, and the diocese had every reason to trust the government would deliver on the purchase and sale agreement.

Geoff Marchant, The Rev. Michael Tessman, and I never gave up on our vision for ChurchWoods. We sought alternative means for achieving our objective.

When HUD offered Rhode Island the opportunity to apply for a Superstorm Sandy disaster grant, they also provided us with a window of opportunity for ChurchWoods.

Award of the HUD grant funds required an affordable housing component in the application. As the only municipality in Rhode Island with an affordable housing bond and formal plans in place, Charlestown was prepared with a project already approved by the Planning Commission at the Master Plan stage, through use of its bond funds. In May of 2014, the Town and WCCDC learned that ChurchWoods won a $4.4 million grant award and the state was eligible for an additional $12 million in disaster relief funds from HUD. There remained a funding gap that Geoff Marchant was able to close, through his experience at winning support from outside investors. With that green flag, the Town’s next step is to use $325,000 from its bond funds to acquire the land from the Episcopal Diocese.

The Charlestown AHC with chair Evelyn Smith, co-chair Sean White, and members Faith LaBossiere, Brian McDonald, Ernest Morreira, and Sandi Puchalski worked diligently to prepare for the purchase of the land. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the Charlestown AHC, Planning Commission, WCCDC, and the patience of the Episcopal Diocese.

I am proud to have worked with such a dedicated team to bring the ChurchWoods project in Charlestown closer to reality.

Tom Gentz