2016-12-08 / Opinion

About Affordable Housing


When it comes to the cost of obtaining affordable housing in the three Aquidneck Island communities, the numbers never seem to change much – if at all.

The issue sprang to life anew at a Newport City Council workshop last month that offered residents an opportunity to speak out about the city’s update of its comprehensive plan.

Among the facts that emerged was that Newport’s percentage of affordable housing stock stands at 17.1 percent – the same as a year ago, according to HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University. Under a 2004 Rhode Island law, municipalities in the state are supposed to achieve a 10 percent benchmark for affordable housing, putting Newport on the good side of this statistic.

Not so, however, for the rest of Aquidneck Island. From the same source we learn that affordable housing percentages in Middletown stand at 5.6 percent, with Portsmouth at 2.8 percent – the same as a year ago. And, as always, these numbers evoked considerable angst with housing advocates who want Newport’s 17.1 percent to stay right there, even though the figure could be as low as 10 percent and still satisfy the state mandate.

The term affordable housing suggests at least a few variations: low-income, senior, or Section 8, to name just a few.

Newport City Planner Christine O’Grady said there was no intention of reducing the percentage of low- and moderate-income housing in Newport. She said, though, that officials were hesitant to enshrine in the comprehensive plan a position that the city “maintain” its current 17.1 percent level, because it could tie the hands of future municipal leaders. Several councilors concurred.

We think that the disparity between Newport’s very acceptable performance and that of its Aquidneck Island neighbors is, if nothing else, startling. While conceding that the makeup of Middletown and Portsmouth housing differs greatly from Newport’s, couldn’t those towns try a little harder to provide more affordable housing for their residents?

Middletown and Portsmouth are among the state’s 29 municipalities that are not exempt from the 10 percent affordable housing requirement. But, as former City Councilor Justin McLaughlin so aptly said of the state law, “You can use the term ‘mandate’ as much as you want, but there are no consequences.”

Should there be? A loss of some state aid – for schools or roads – would certainly draw attention to the issue and all of its complexities.

McLaughlin’s observation makes us think that it’s time to have an islandwide conversation about this multi-faceted issue. We would like to see such a gathering – or gatherings, if necessary – include state lawmakers from Aquidneck Island, as well as local officials and, of course, interested citizens.

Meanwhile, affordable housing is an issue that never goes away. But ensuring that all who live or want to live on this island have an affordable place to call home should be a realistic – and compassionate – goal for the community and those we have elected to do our bidding.

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