2016-12-01 / Around Town

Housing Advocates Scrutinize Comp Plan

By Barry Bridges

Housing issues took center stage at a Newport City Council workshop on Wednesday, Nov. 16, that offered residents another chance to share their views on the city’s comprehensive plan update.

The 15-chapter comp plan outlines the city’s goals and policies for the next 20 years and covers an array of topics such as economic development, natural resources, and transportation. A new plan has to filed with the state every decade. The Planning Board and the city staff has spearheaded the 2016 effort.

As work on the plan has progressed over the past year, officials said there had been at least 16 meetings soliciting comments and ideas from the community, but they were generally sparsely attended. Planning Chair Kim Salerno said, “We always invited input, but received very little…. The present council started it, the new council will implement it, but the plan belongs to the public.”

Housing advocates, however, are among those who made their case at various stages of the process. Housing is one of the comp plan’s major elements, consistent with the statewide objective of “ensuring all citizens have access to a range of housing choices, including the availability of affordable housing for all income levels and age groups.”

Rhode Island dictates that 10 percent of municipal housing stock be for those in low- or moderate-income brackets. Newport far exceeds that amount at 17 percent. The majority of those units are in Newport Heights, Bayside Village, Broadway West, Festival Field, Rolling Green Village, and Park Holm.

Whether or not Newport would commit to keeping that level at 17 percent through language in the city’s comp plan was a question on the mind of several in attendance at the Nov. 16 meeting.

Judy Jones, of 20 Bateman Ave., wanted the city to pledge to “maintain” the current levels. “[The language in the plan] really seems to go back to just saying that the city standards would be the 10 percent, and not pledging to preserve our current affordable low- to moderate income housing.”

But some on the city side didn’t want to commit to a definite figure. City Planner Christine O’Grady said, “[The Planning Board wasn’t] trying to reduce the percentage of low- and moderate-income housing. That was not their intent. They were just hesitant to include the word 'maintain' and strap the council with that particular designation.” Councilor Naomi Neville agreed that it probably wasn’t wise to lock future city leaders into such a commitment.

Jones continued, “I think that there is a need for [the current] amount of low- and moderate-income housing in this community…. We feel that the 17 percent is needed and needs to be preserved and maintained.”

Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano stressed that other localities need to step up to the plate considering the state’s 10 percent provision.

“I think there is a concern that here we are in Newport, 17 percent, the highest per capita in the state, and we have other communities right next door that certainly have low-income families and seniors and are not adequately helping,” she said.

Councilor Justin McLaughlin observed, “We need to put some teeth into [the state’s 10 percent] law. You can use the term ‘mandate’ as much as you want, but there are no consequences.” He also suggested that the city look at ways to increase densities to better achieve housing goals.

Rhonda Mitchell, executive director of the Newport Housing Authority, took the podium and presented figures showing that housing continues to be a critical issue in Newport.

“Even though we’ve got 17 percent of our housing stock as affordable, 43 percent of the renters in Newport are housing cost-burdened, paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing expenses. That’s almost 6,000 families,” she reported. “Also, 1,700 Newport families are paying more than 50 percent of their income on housing expenses. So we really have to consider that the need is there, even though we’re exceeding the state requirements.”

Authority Chair Frank Landry gave forceful comments on the state mandate. “If Barrington, East Greenwich, Portsmouth, the wealthiest communities in our state with land to build on refuse to do it, then they should be penalized, state aid should be removed from them, and it should be given to communities like Newport for educational aid or whatever needs to be done. I guarantee you, if you put money behind it, those cities will then create affordable housing.”

He added that the city’s efforts in the North End could be an effective model moving forward. “We spent $100 million of private-city-federal monies to do what we’ve done out at Newport Heights, and we can do it again. But we have to be committed.”

Councilor Kathryn Leonard said that there should be a greater emphasis on workforce housing, and wanted to tighten up language in the plan that would allow for flexible zoning “throughout the city,” including residential districts.

Remarks from other attendees honed in on language pertaining to the city’s open spaces and recreational areas.

Convening briefly in a special session, councilors voted to unanimously approve the draft plan with several amendments put forth by Neville on open spaces and flexible zoning. The housing language was crafted to “preserve and enhance an inventory of low- and moderate income housing stock,” with no reference to “maintain” or to the state threshold.

Before the plan is officially finalized, however, there will be two additional council hearings for interested persons to give their input, as well as opportunities during the state-level review process.

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