The Newport City Council was united on Feb. 8 in approving a bundle of new ideas to tackle the housing crisis, giving unanimous approval to five resolutions focused on increasing housing availability.
The resolutions direct the city administration to study specific housing issues and report back to the council later this year. One mandates the city look at other municipalities to determine if the annual fee for short-term rental permits should be increased. Another requires city staff to research expanding accessory dwelling units, which include such arrangements as in-law apartments, rooms above garages or in basements and detached cottages. Others call for a “comprehensive review” of Newport’s zoning code and historic district laws.
“We don’t have enough housing for long-term residents,” Councilor Mark Aramli said. “And until the land in the North End is built out, there’s a strong sense that there’s nowhere left to build.”
The resolutions all point to the same problem, a lack of available and affordable housing stock. The average cost of owning a home in Newport has increased by over 64 percent since 2015, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, and median gross rents in the city have increased 35 percent, nearly double the state average, in the same time. Since 2000, only a net 24 units of housing have been added to the city’s stock.
Newport accounts for 25 percent of Rhode Island’s short-term rentals, the highest in the state, according to the same data.
The first resolution directs city management to “conduct a review of the current fee structure and enforcement resources for short-term rentals and propose any modifications to be included as part of the fiscal year 2024 budget,” along with monthly reports to the council detailing the number of shortterm rentals permitted in the city, the number of applications pending and the number of violations of the short-term rental ordinance.
Newport currently charges a $100 annual fee for a short-term rental permit, although Councilor David Carlin said he would like to see it be increased. Carlin pointed to Jamestown, which he said charges $700 for an annual license.
Last year, Newport banned new short-term rental properties in residential zones, although properties registered before the law’s passage were exempt from the prohibition. The city uses a complaint driven system to enforce its short-term rental laws, requiring zoning compliance officers to conduct inspections of properties reported to be in violation. Councilors said the collection of shortterm rental fees should be enough to cover the cost of such public employees.
Councilors also discussed increasing the fee for violations of short-term rental laws. The fee currently can reach a maximum of $100 per day if the property owner is found to be in violation.
Last session, the Rhode Island General Assembly loosened requirements and restrictions around accessory dwelling units. The council wants to study the law change to see how it can create more local housing opportunities. The enabling legislation from the state also could allow for easier conversions of single-family homes to two-family homes.
The resolution calls for city management, in coordination with the Planning Board, Zoning Board, Historic District Commission, community stakeholders and the council, to “provide proposed ordinances and policies to incentivize the creation of accessory dwelling units for occupancy by Newport residents.” The law changes, if enacted, will not increase the number of short-term rentals, the council said, but will “enable homeowners.”
Newport requires a change to its charter in order to enshrine the enabling legislation from the state. Outstanding concerns are the zones the changes would be applied to, parking, the impact on short-term renters and increased water, sewer and electricity use. The resolution calls for ordinances and policies for council consideration by June 30.
To make laws more “objective and affordable for homeowners,” the council will provide policy directives to support the city staff’s review and update of zoning ordinances, with a June 30 delivery date for proposals. A separate resolution passage mandates city staff provide the council with a “workplan and budget request” for a comprehensive review and modernization of the zoning code by June 30.
With the passage of the final resolution, the city will now consider reopening its RFP for the Coggeshall School for a 60-day period for amendments and new proposals and provide the council with the proposals and accompanying recommendations later this year. The resolution also requires a monthly report to the council on the number of new housing units added or lost and a roster of all vacant municipal buildings, including current conditions and estimated timelines for potential redevelopment, by Sept. 30.
In other matters, the council appointed John Laramee and Dale Nelson to three-year terms on the HDC; William Willis to a threeyear term on the Tree and Open Space Commission; Meg Dodge to a five-year term on the Trust and Investment Commission and reappointed Planning Board Chair Jeff Brooks to a three-year term.
The council also passed a second reading of a new contract with the police union, and heard from the chairs of the HDC, Planning Board and Zoning Board of Review regarding the groups’ annual reports. Mayor Xay Khamsyovoravong asked Brooks about future initiatives of the Planning Board.
“With the bridge realignment project starting to come to fruition, I’d like to see a little more action on creating a sense of place in the North End in terms of parks and open space,” Brooks said. “That would be a great use of our time over the coming years.”
Finally, the council continued a mobile food cart renewal application from Newport Lobster Shack after residents complained that the cart is obstructing views and is not stored away at the end of the day.