2015-11-25 / Front Page

Housing Target Elusive

By Tom Walsh

Affordable housing, an issue that never retreats, again became a topic of discussion in early November as the Middletown Town Council grappled with the question of how to develop the few available acres remaining along West Main Road.

According to Ronald M. Wolanski, Middletown director of planning and economic development, the town currently has 386 affordable housing units and would need 302 more to satisfy state mandates.

Newport, on the other hand, greatly exceeds the percentage of affordable housing units required by state law and currently has 2,236 units.

But that’s still not enough.

Around 2,500 families remain on a waiting list for affordable housing in Newport. And, according to records maintained by the Newport Housing Authority, another 350 elderly and disabled individuals fill out a separate list.

Additionally, “Section 8” housing, the low- and moderate-income federal government program that has enabled about 500 qualified renters to find affordable housing through rental subsidies, has been closed to new enrollees in Newport since 2008.

“And we’re still working off the last 50 people on that list,” said Rhonda Mitchell, the authority’s executive director. “There is a tremendous need. Some are low-income working families working in hospitality or in retail jobs at Mc- Donald’s or Wendy’s. It’s a working population.”

In Middletown, there are about 60 families now receiving Section 8 assistance.

Among the affordable housing developments in Newport are Park Holm, Chapel Terrace, Donovan Manor, Newport Heights, and 50 Washington Square.

In the United States, a commonly accepted guideline for affordable housing is a monthly rental or mortgage cost that does not exceed 30 percent of household gross income. Households paying more than that usually encounter difficulties meeting other financial responsibilities.

Ten Percent Threshold

In Rhode Island, a law enacted in 2004 requires that at least 10 percent of each municipality’s housing stock be “affordable,” and they are supposed to remain that way for at least 30 years. The same law exempts 10 communities—including Newport—because of their substantial affordable housing inventories. For example, in Newport, even with its long waiting list, 17.1 percent of housing stock is considered affordable.

The state’s other exempt communities are Central Falls, Cranston, East Providence, North Providence, Pawtucket, Providence, Warwick, West Warwick and Woonsocket.

Of the 29 communities not exempt— Middletown, Portsmouth, Jamestown, Tiverton, and Little Compton included—only one, New Shoreham (Block Island), complies with the 10 percent requirement.

Middletown’s affordable housing stock stands at 5.6 percent of all housing, while in Portsmouth that figure is 2.8 percent. Nearby Jamestown’s affordable housing percentage is 4.4 percent.

“The bottom line is that most communities in the state are not meeting 10 percent,” said Wolanski .“ Housing affordability continues to be a problem for many Rhode Islanders and the percentage of our households that are considered cost-burdened has grown since 2000,” said Nicole Lagace, director of HousingWorks RI of Roger Williams University. “For example, half of the state’s rental households spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.” Her organization estimates that more than 153,000 Rhode Island households live in housing that is unaffordable.

“It’s an issue that just doesn’t go away,” said the Housing Authority’s Mitchell. “And it gets worse because salaries just do not increase at the same rate as housing costs. Every single day we turn families away. We want to help them, but our units don’t turn over very often.”

According to HousingWorks RI, Newport leads the state for the highest percentage of housing that is “long-term affordable.” Middletown ranks 18th. HousingWorks RI provided the following housing facts pertaining to Aquidneck Island’s three municipalities:

Newport: Average two-bedroom rent: $1,424; Income needed for average rent: $56,960; Median single-family home price: $415,000; Monthly housing payment for this house: $2,974; Income needed to afford this house: $118,948.

Middletown: Average two-bedroom rent: $1,398; Income needed for average rent: $55,920; Median single-family home price: $337,500; Monthly housing payment for this house: $2,553; Income needed to afford this house: $102,137.

Portsmouth: Average two-bedroom rent: $1,281; Income needed for average rent: $51,240; Median single-family home price: $315,000; Monthly housing payment for this house: $2,396; Income needed to afford this house: $95,826. Some Signs of Progress

While these statistics suggest that communities are having difficulty in attaining the state’s 10 percent benchmark, Lagace maintained that progress remains possible.

For example, she praised the effort of Rhode Island Housing, the self-sustaining public agency that, according to its mission statement, provides home financing programs designed to “ensure that all people who live or work in Rhode Island can afford a safe, healthy home.”

“They are doing a great job in assisting first-time homebuyers and coming up with innovative programs that encourage investment in Rhode Island through home ownership,” Lagace told Newport This Week. She cited the agency’s program that offers up to $7,000 in down payment assistance to recent college graduates who want to buy their first home in Rhode Island. “This is a great way to encourage young talent to stay and invest in our state.”

However, she added, Rhode Island faces big challenges if it is to match the commitments of neighboring states.

“Rhode Island has long lagged behind our New England neighbors in public investment for affordable housing,” Lagace said. “Even on a per capita basis, Rhode Island does not invest in housing like Connecticut and Massachusetts, and that has led to housing costs that have outpaced incomes here. States typically invest in the development and ongoing operation costs of affordable housing for workers as an economic driver. Rhode Island could invest more in this area.”

The figures don’t lie. According to HousingWorks RI, Massachusetts invested $92.80 per capita in fiscal year 2015 to improve affordable housing and prevent homelessness. In Connecticut, the per capita investment was $52.02 for the same period.

In Rhode Island, the per capita investment in fiscal 2015 was $9.47.

In a letter sent last month to Gov. Gina M. Raimondo, Rhode Island’s affordable housing advocates asked her to support placing a $100 million housing bond before voters at next November’s general election.

“She has said she gets the need for housing,” Mitchell said. “She said she would love to sit down with the housing community.”

Lagace emphasized what she believes is needed. “Policymakers must prioritize housing and ensure an adequate supply of housing that is affordable to workers,” she declared.

Return to top