Affordable Housing Stock Shrinks in Some R.I. Towns
State law requires 10% of most communities’ housing stock qualify as affordable
January 23, 2023
During the past decade, a few Rhode Island municipalities have made slow progress toward the state’s 10% low- and moderate-income housing requirement, while some have stalled and many others have fallen behind.
Although most municipalities saw an increase in their percentage of affordable housing, with gains ranging from 0.05 to 3.79 percentage points in the past 10 years, 14 communities saw a percentage decrease in affordable housing since 2012, according to 2022 data from HousingWorksRI.
Low- and moderate-income housing, according to state law, is based on area median income and adjusted for household size. Currently, only six municipalities meet the state’s requirement: Burrillville, Central Falls, Newport, New Shoreham, Providence, and Woonsocket.
Middletown saw the biggest setback in its progress toward the minimum affordable housing; its proportion of affordable housing decreased by 37% over the past 10 years. The issues impacting Middletown — and many municipalities around the state — range from a lack of funding to no capacity for density, according to experts.
In a state facing a housing crisis that leaves many residents cost-burdened or without a home altogether, those who confront housing challenges for a living said a lot can and should be done to increase affordable housing.
From top to middle of the pack for Middletown
In 2012, Middletown, on Aquidneck Island, was less than 2 percentage points away from reaching the state’s affordable housing requirement. More than 8% of its housing stock qualified as affordable at the time.
Ten years later, the town has barely half of the state minimum — a little more than 5% of its housing now qualifies as affordable.
Ronald Wolanski, Middletown’s director of planning and economic development, said the decrease in the percentage of affordable housing, which was sharpest between 2013 and 2014, was due to the lapse in a deed restriction at the Oxbow Farms development.
After the expiration of the deed, 182 of the 302 units in the complex no longer had to meet affordable housing standards and became market-rate apartments, according to Jeannine Lockhart, on-site operations manager at Oxbow.
Deed restrictions from 30 to 99 years enable many of the units in Rhode Island to be considered affordable and long term, but the deeds aren’t permanent.
Decades “sounds like a lot,” Wolanski said, “but time flies.”
Money, money, money
While the clock ticks on units with deed restrictions, the ability to build new affordable housing in Middletown and communities around the state is often hampered by cost.
“Developers typically aren’t making money, or at least not a lot of money, when they’re building affordable housing,” Wolanski said. “It’s a real puzzle for these developers to pull together all the different funding that they need to make a project pan out.”
The cost of land in Middletown makes it difficult to build market-rate, mid-range housing, let alone affordable units, he said.
Developers often argue that the cost of building new housing makes high-end and luxury living the only profitable option for them without tax incentives and subsidies, and affordable housing projects are almost all dependent on federal and state funding, which varies in availability.
“Part of the problem, particularly with building affordable units, is that up until this year, we haven’t had a big pot of money to build and develop those units,” HousingWorksRI director Brenda Clement told ecoRI News.
The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) will allocate $250 million to Rhode Island for affordable housing programs, resulting in what Clement called “one of the biggest pots of money that we’ve had in a very, very long time to build and develop more housing.”
She noted funding must work in conjunction with other funding sources and local zoning laws to maximize effectiveness.
“It’s a good start, but we can’t stop there,” said Clement, adding that $250 million “is a lot of money, but it’s not enough money to get to build and catch up on housing production and development.”
Location, location, location
Even when there are funds available for more housing, finding the right place to build it is still a challenge.
“You can’t really have cheaper housing … without density,” said Scott Millar, chair of Exeter’s Planning Board and senior policy analyst at Grow Smart Rhode Island, speaking from his own experience.
Density allows for more housing to be built inexpensively, but it often requires significant existing resources to be possible.
Public water, sewer, and roadways that can handle more traffic and mass transportation are among some of the important infrastructure that an area needs to safely and comfortably accommodate denser housing, Millar said.
Most rural and suburban communities don’t have this type of infrastructure town-wide, if at all.
The easiest places to expand affordable housing would be within the urban services boundary, Millar said, which are areas within Rhode Island that already have many of the infrastructure systems — public water and sewer, bus or other public transportation access — necessary to accommodate denser housing.
This boundary largely sits in the communities in and around Providence and Narragansett Bay’s coast, but also includes patches of Westerly, Burrillville, and Richmond.
“That’s where there’s the low-hanging fruit. That’s where you’re going to get the most housing built, quickly,” said Millar, noting he believes development within this area will help “solve the crisis we’re in right now.”
Part of Middletown does sit inside the urban services boundary and is serviced by public water. It’s in this section of town, around the old Oliphant Elementary School, that a developer is proposing an affordable housing complex that Wolanski said could add dozens of affordable units, pending approval.
Difficulties of density in rural Rhode Island
What about other parts of the state such as Little Compton, which has had less than 1% of its housing stock qualify as affordable over the past 10 years and has almost no infrastructure to accommodate density?
Funding projects in these communities, which tend to have higher land values, also becomes a challenge, according Christian Belden, the executive director of the nonprofit Church Community Housing Corporation, which has been building and rehabbing affordable housing in Newport County since 1969.
Grants for housing are competitive and rely on a number of elements, but project cost per unit is usually the primary factor, Belden said. Places like Middletown tend to have higher building costs while accommodating fewer units compared to more urban areas.
But just because it’s more difficult to build affordable housing in those communities doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible or important to do, Belden said.
“It costs more to develop those units there. But there are long-term positive benefits of doing so that should outweigh that short term … higher cost,” he said.
He noted housing that provides families with access to high-performing schools can increase a child’s future income and help break cycles of poverty.
Four of the top 10 public schools in Rhode Island are in communities that sit in the bottom 10 places for affordable housing percentages: Barrington, Chariho, Exeter-West Greenwhich, and Portsmouth.
Belden said he has fought to get school district rankings considered more heavily in the housing grant decision process, with some modest gains.
Then there are the environmental issues.
“It’s challenging for [those communities] to find areas that could really support density without having, you know, some really severe environmental impacts,” Millar said. In Charlestown, for example, houses are densely packed into neighborhoods near the ocean and households rely on septic systems, causing frequent nitrogen contamination in local salt ponds.
Though he believes there are many places where affordable housing could be supported by zoning changes, Millar said he doesn’t believe that smaller lot or multifamily zoning is necessarily right for some places that are ecologically fragile and aren’t equipped with the right services to handle a lot of people.
But he said that doesn’t mean communities can’t accommodate more housing. For those places, he suggests creative approaches.
Millar also pointed to Exeter, where he is a resident. Over the past 10 years, Exeter has seen the greatest percent change in its proportion of affordable housing of all the cities and towns in Rhode Island.
In 2012, 2.2% of its housing stock qualified as affordable, and now 5.99% qualifies. The increase in the town’s affordable housing has largely come from a development called Pine View, which will add 40 new, affordable apartments.
Millar said Exeter has taken a lot of time to examine and plan where affordable units would be the most feasible. Although the town doesn’t have the same coastal ecological issues as Middletown or Little Compton, it encompasses the starriest part of the sky from D.C. to Boston because of its lack of development and abundance of open space, something that local organizations have tried to preserve.
A Vision for Exeter was a plan created in 2011 with help from consultants and years of outreach to local residents to try to balance the landscape while increasing the town’s capacity for affordable housing. Although density has the potential to harm, Millar noted that in this situation it was the answer if it’s in the right place.
The resulting input and analysis revealed several locations that could accommodate denser housing and prevent sparse development throughout the town, reducing open space.
On the other side of the bay, Aquidneck Island Land Trust (ALT) executive director Charles Allott said he believes “affordable housing and open space conservation are totally compatible” and can even work in tandem.
In a 2019 impact analysis, ALT emphasized how more densely settled, affordable units could help prevent Aquidneck Island from wiping out its unprotected open space in the next few decades.
ATL is planning on partnering with Church Community Housing on a joint housing/conservation venture. The project could look something like a cluster or conservation development that uses land space more efficiently so that open space can be preserved, Allott said.
“We just haven’t found a parcel that really works for that, but we will keep looking,” he said.
‘There is a housing crisis’
While Middletown waits for approval of the affordable complex near the former Oliphant Elementary School, Wolanski said the town is also considering an inclusionary zoning ordinance, which would require a certain percentage of affordable housing from a development and the maximum 99 years for affordable housing deed restrictions, but those changes still need to be finalized and put before the Town Council.
Although the decrease in the percentage of affordable housing over the past few years is stark, it doesn’t reflect the wants of the Middletown community or its future, Wolanski said.
“The residents of Middletown come to Town Council meetings and say that, you know, ‘Our children can’t afford to live here,’” he said, “and that’s really, I think, made a difference over the last several years in allowing some projects that have come through to get through the approval process.
“People in Middletown at least recognize that there is a housing crisis, particularly on Aquidneck Island.”