Little Compton Has a Housing Problem
Town's zoning laws and people's attitudes present challenges
March 6, 2023
LITTLE COMPTON, R.I. — From John Ross Mushen’s one-bedroom apartment on Willow Avenue, he can walk or bike to almost anywhere he wants to go. And as a sort of unofficial mayor in town, he has many places he needs to be.
He strolls over to Town Hall, where he chats with the staff and, since COVID, often helps out by cleaning doorknobs. During the winter, to watch basketball games, he walks over to the Wilbur & McMahon Schools just down the street, where he used to volunteer and was the first inclusion student who ever attended.
Mushen, an adult with developmental disabilities, has many friends from his jobs and jaunts around Little Compton.
“We knew that he could have a life here,” his mother, Marsha Mushen, said. And he has, thanks in part to a community that came together to build affordable housing in a town that has very little.
Affordable, or attainable
Mushen is one of the few Little Compton residents who lives in affordable housing, which is defined by the state as costing no more than 30% of a person’s gross income, according to HousingWorks RI. For a minimum-wage worker with a full-time job, an affordable rent would be no more than $468 a month. For a median-income household, an affordable home would cost no more than $1,421 a month.
There are nine long-term affordable housing units in town, comprising about half a percent of Little Compton’s housing stock, making Little Compton the municipality with the smallest percentage of affordable housing in the state, according to HousingWorks RI 2022 Housing Fact Book. According to state law, most cities and towns must maintain 10% of their year-round housing stock as affordable housing. A unit is affordable if it receives a subsidy from a federal, state, or local source and has an affordability restriction in place for at least 30 years.
The lack of affordable housing, as defined by the state, is paired with a lack of attainable housing, as defined by lifelong, longtime, and aspiring Little Comptonites who spoke to ecoRI News.
The median cost of a single-family home in Little Compton was $797,000 last year, the third highest in the state, according to HousingWorks. Many residents are cost-burdened, with 28% of homeowners and 30% of renters in town spending more than 30% of their income on housing.
Several people said they had already been priced out of town or soon would be.
Although not everyone agrees on what to do, most agree the town has to do something.
Jenna Magnuski started looking for a house in Little Compton in November 2021. The wife of a “generational townie,” Magnuski’s family lived in an old farmhouse owned by her in-laws, making her children the sixth generation to live there.
Their family history, coupled with the fact that Magnuski, 36, works in town, and her kids, who both have special needs, love the small size and familiarity of the Wilbur School, made staying seem like the best choice.
When she first started looking, her and her husband’s budget was about $350,000, but as they searched and couldn’t find anything, that number kept creeping up, and quickly rose to $420,000.
Even with the higher ceiling, she’d put a bid on a house for the asking price, only to lose to a cash offer that was tens of thousands of dollars more, she said.
For three months, the family exclusively searched in Little Compton, but by February of last year, it seemed like buying a house here was an impossible task and they realized they had to look outside of town.
By March, they had purchased a house in nearby Westport, Mass. They closed in April and moved in May.
Magnuski’s story isn’t unique.
“I know a few other people who have managed to find reasonable housing [in Little Compton], but it’s few and far between,” said one former resident who still works for a farm in town and asked not to be named for fear of professional repercussions.
The former resident had rented in town for seven years, drawn to Little Compton for work, before deciding recently to move to a more northern part of the state. Price was a factor in her and her husband’s decision to move.
“Hopefully, the ship has not sailed because I still love it there,” she said. “So, we’ll see.”
Danielle Jennings, 30, grew up in Little Compton and had also recently wanted to move back with her four kids, so they could grow up like she did.
Jennings remembers an idyllic childhood. She spent summer weekends at the beach. With her friends, she had crossed through barnyards to get to each other’s houses, petting the cows along the way. Everyone knew everyone.
But just like other young, would-be residents, she found cost to be a major barrier.
Combined, Jennings said she and her partner make about $100,000 a year, but that wasn’t enough. She ultimately moved to an apartment in Warren.
“I’ve kind of let it go,” Jennings said. “But I still have always dreamed of being able to raise my kids in Little Compton.”
Another Little Compton resident, who works as a real estate agent in the area and asked not to be named for fears of professional repercussions, said the market has exploded since March 2020, raising prices and leaving fewer houses for sale.
“Before the pandemic there was always inventory in Little Compton,” she said. “It wasn’t this, you know, super popular place for people to move to.” When she spoke to ecoRI News in early February, there were only nine Little Compton houses on the market.
During the pandemic, she saw a lot of cash offers — above asking price — from buyers who lived out of state and wanted to escape city life. That has raised prices for everyone.
A house she showed before the pandemic that was in the mid-$400,000 range is almost $700,000 today, she said.
The real estate agent resident admitted she can only afford to live in Little Compton because she rents from family. The cheapest rentals she has seen are around $2,500 a month — and those are only winter rentals. Prices are jacked up to between $3,000 and $3,500 for the summer.
A declining population
Although the story of expensive housing seems like a common thread, it wasn’t always so extreme, according to locals who spoke to ecoRI News.
When Nate Magnuski was growing up, Little Compton was different from the summer enclave it’s become. There were more restaurants and even a gas station, which no longer exists.
During past Halloweens, the streets were filled with little ghosts begging for candy, he said. “Now it’s nothing, nothing, it’s so sad.”
The Wilbur School’s enrollment has mostly been declining. Between the 2011 and 2021 academic years, the number of students at the school decreased by 32%. The school has seen an uptick in students for the 2022-23 school year, but only after opening up to students outside of town.
“There’s no young people anymore,” Nate Magnuski said, adding that although populations are aging in lots of places, “it seems disastrously fast for Little Compton.”
He said a lack of affordable housing, not just for low-income people but also middle-class families, are driving those changes.
During Magnuski’s childhood, he said his parents could afford to live in town, but they weren’t millionaires or even white-collar workers. His father worked in a local mill and then did maintenance at the school. His mother worked and still works at the community college in Fall River. In 1999, the average cost of a home in Little Compton was $193,500, about a fifth of the cost today.
“Little Compton is a working-class community. It has always been a working-class community,” Magnuski said. “Right now, clinging to some false notion of the past is eroding what makes Little Compton special.”
The town sits on the “farm coast” — an area that includes Tiverton and Westport and Dartmouth, Mass., with moderate, ocean-affected seasons — and has long been an agricultural community. It was also a community that at one time had housing and infrastructure to accommodate those workers.
The Wilbur House, where the Little Compton Historical Society now resides, was once a multifamily home.
The house “sheltered as many as four different generations, each with their own living quarters and often with a shared kitchen,” according to Marjory O’Toole, executive director of the historical society. The house also was an apartment building before housing the historical society.
Carter Wilkie, who lives and raises pigs in the town, said if Little Compton wants to maintain that history and character, it must do something about the lack of affordable housing.
Little Compton is a unique community, where “you can farm and see the ocean in the same zip code,” Wilkie said, and he believes that deserves to be preserved.
The town has already done the work of protecting farmland, through the Little Compton Agricultural Conservancy Trust and other land trusts in the area, Wilkie said, but “protecting farmland doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to be farmed.”
He pointed to the tens of acres of Agricultural Conservancy Trust land being farmed out of the thousands that have been preserved. (The organization has preserved more than 2,000 acres of land in town, but only leases 133 acres of that land to farmers, according to its website.)
“Towns on the farm coast no longer have an open space problem,” Wilkie said. “The problem now is housing affordability and where are our next generation of farmers are going to live.”
‘Keep Little Compton little’
The Little Compton Housing Trust was established in 2005 to solve some of these housing issues. The trust is an advocacy group that can hold and lease property for the purpose of creating affordable housing, according to Patrick Bowen, a fourth-generation Little Compton resident and chair of the Housing Trust.
Since 2018, a portion of the town’s building permit fees have been allocated to the trust, allowing it to accrue about $230,000, Bowen said.
The lack of funding has made it difficult to get projects off the ground, Bowen said. One of the biggest projects the group has been able to accomplish to date was a housing survey, done in collaboration with HousingWorks RI, which showed that the issue is an important topic for many in town.
Three-quarters of the respondents said they had had a conversation about housing in the year prior. About 46% of respondents said they or someone they knew was having trouble with their housing, with most of them saying that the issue was finding a home.
The most important issue for most of the respondents was creating opportunities for younger generations.
“The overwhelming majority of respondents were in support of finding ways to create more housing for the diverse needs that we have,” said Bowen, adding that disagreement stems from how to do it.
Although the survey showed support for affordable housing, that support has limits for some. Some of the suggestion made by participants included:
“Keep Little Compton little and a nice quaint town.”
“Do NOT WANT SECTION 8 HOUSING OF ANY KIND!”
“[Affordable housing] doesn’t have to be a trailer park.”
Larry Anderson, who has lived in Little Compton full-time since the 1980s and has been involved in town politics in both unelected and elected positions, said he has seen how the town has tried and failed to increase “affordable housing,” a term he puts in quotes because of its complicated etymology.
There’s the affordable housing the state defines under certain parameters, which count toward its 10% minimum required by Rhode Island law, and then there’s housing that’s “affordable” for people to buy or rent in the relative, colloquial sense.
The conversation gets muddled because of the conflation of the two, he said.
“It’s proven to be very difficult, very challenging to have a sustained, informed public discussion and deliberation and consensus approach to this issue in Little Compton,” Anderson said. “People have different ideas, and perhaps prejudices about what affordable housing would mean for the community.”
Bowen himself said he isn’t a proponent of a large affordable housing complex.
Beyond not fitting into the character of the town in the opinion of some residents, there would be some environmental challenges to building the dense housing needed for a more traditional affordable housing complex.
Little Compton sits far outside the urban service boundary. There is no public water or sewer, so residents have their own wells and septic systems.
Instead, Bowen said people could take advantage of existing zoning laws by increasing the number of accessory dwellings to boost affordable units and allow younger generations to stay in Little Compton.
The town has done some work on zoning laws, like those that make accessory dwellings easier to use, but many rules are challenging to affordable housing. The minimum lot size in Little Compton has been 2 acres for decades and most of the town isn’t zoned for multifamily or mixed-use buildings.
Wilkie said he’s seen some structures in farming areas of New York that look like traditional barns but also include housing for farm workers. He said he would like to see zoning changes to allow this type of building, which would be functional while also preserving the town’s character.
Bowen would also like to work with the Agricultural Conservancy Trust to create more affordable housing.
Although the Agricultural Conservancy Trust can buy land, per its governing laws, it does not hold property that has a dwelling on it, which means that on its own, it wouldn’t be able to support the creation of affordable housing.
There has been some talk of a collaboration by subdividing a large property, with the land being bought through the Agricultural Conservancy Trust and the dwelling bought by the Housing Trust, Bowen said.
The Agricultural Conservancy Trust did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite the challenges, affordable housing has been created with buy-in from the community.
Tom Arkins, a local builder and carpenter, created six of the town’s nine affordable housing units in 2012.
The project, at 176 Willow Ave., has units of varying sizes with rents that range from $600 to $1,200 a month, with utilities included. There’s one studio, and one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments.
When the project got started, it had widespread support from people in the town and from various officials, Arkin said.
At the time, another complex with dozens of units for elderly housing was being proposed for an old restaurant. Ultimately, it was not approved, and Arkin said the size of the project helped drive opposition.
Arkin designed the Willow Avenue building to fit into the character of the town, with two buildings, one that looked like a regular house with apartments and another that was a modified barn style.
Before getting the project off the ground, he had been prepared for the housing to not work out financially, he said, but he and his wife, Josie, discussed wanting to do the project regardless, because it felt like the right thing to do. Arkin was partially inspired to build the apartments because of a family member who has struggled to find stable housing.
“It just so happened that at the end … we got a good amount of money to help us with the project and it all worked out very well,” he said. Some of the money came from grants written by O’Toole, executive director of the historical society.
Part of the success of the project came from assembling a team of people from different groups and boards to solicit advice and figure out the best way to make affordable units happen.
The town helped out by extending the business zone to the end of the lot so Arkin would have more flexibility in building the project, which sits next to his workshop in a small complex.
“Everybody was very supportive, and then it was just a matter of working with us to get everything lined up,” he said.
Ultimately, he believes the tight-knit nature of the community might actually work toward getting more projects like his up and running.
“I know it’s not easy when you have such a problem,” he said, “but on a local level … there’s better ways to do it for different places.”
Marsha and Bob Mushen, John’s parents, were also a part of the coalition that worked toward making 176 Willow Ave. a reality. John has lived there since it opened.
The units host a mix of people at different ages and stages of life. That sort of multigenerational living means that everyone is adding something different to the experience of living there, Arkins said.
Arkins said he is happy with the community that has formed around the project.
John is happy, too.
“I love living here; I have more friends,” he told ecoRI News, sitting in his living room across from his mother, who lives down the street and with whom he has dinner every night.
His walls are lined with police and fire patches he’s gathered over time, many collected or gifted by the friends he’s made.
“This community has provided for John Ross in ways you never could have imagined,” Marsha Mushen said. “He has a wonderful life.”