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Affordable Housing Assailed, Explained

The Barrington Housing Board of Trustees turns its monthly meeting into a public forum on affordable housing in this community.

An affordable-housing development may never be approved for the Sowams Nursery property off of Sowams Road in Barrington – a plan has not been submitted yet despite a preliminary proposal aired by the East Bay Community Development Corporation several weeks ago.

But the possibility of this 56-unit rental development served as a catalyst Tuesday night for a wide-ranging and sometimes rambling discussion of affordable housing in Barrington and the town’s Comprehensive Plan and Affordable Housing Production Plan.

Affordable housing was the focus of a public forum held by the Barrington Housing Board of Trustees in the Council Chamber in Town Hall. It was set up to answer questions from prospective neighbors of the Sowams development and other residents concerned about the impact of this development on the town -- including property values, taxes, and penalties Barrington could face if it does not meet the state-mandated quota of 10 percent of all housing units being affordable.

The forum also demonstrated that NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) remains an issue for these types of projects, which often are perceived as less than desirable housing in a community.

Nancy Letendre, an attorney who specializes in housing issues as a member of the Ursillo and Teitz law firm, the town’s solicitors, handled many of the questions for the Housing Board. But members of the Housing Board were far from reluctant to answer questions as they were about a month ago at a previous meeting that had the Sowams development on the agenda.

The Housing Board’s reluctance actually led to the scheduling of the public forum – a promise made by Steve Martin, chairman of the Housing Board, at last month’s meeting.

Letendre explained that Barrington is under a state mandate to make 10 percent of its 6,000 housing units affordable to homeowners with incomes of $67,000 and less. Why 10 percent?

“I really don’t know,” she said. “It was a starting point. There may be towns with much higher needs.”

The state law has led to the creation of a Comprehensive Community Plan, she said, that pinpoints potential lots for affordable housing. The law also led to the need for Barrington to come up with an Affordable Housing Production Plan that shows the town is making a serious effort to make more housing units affordable.

Both plans, Letendre said, helps to control construction by developers. “The comp plan,” said Carla DeStefano, a Housing Board member, “guides the developer and the community.”

Affordable housing, in short, involves the use of federal and state subsidies and “density bonuses” that act as a type of subsidy for developers “in exchange for allowing deed restrictions” to be but on properties. The deed restrictions typically limit the future sale of a property for at least 30 years to someone in the same income level.

“Any property burdened with a deed restriction is eligible for a tax benefit,” Letendre said, in answering a question from Gary Morse of Westwood Lane.Morse said he believes those “tax reductions are a developer’s dream.”

DeStefano disagreed strongly.  “It’s not a developer’s dream because of the deed restriction,” she said.

Not convinced, Morse asked the Housing Board to seek a legal opinion on the tax policy.

“It’s never been a challenge,” said Letendre, “but we will look into it.”

Scott Clarke of Old Chimney Road asked about the current number of affordable housing units in Barrington. The number is 160, said Housing Board member Steve Boyajian, which “leaves quite a gap to reach 600.”

Clark also asked about potential penalties if the town doesn’t work to create more affordable housing.

“The state could threaten to suspend the town’s eligibility for CDBG (federal community development block) grants,” said Letendre, which are a prime source of federal funds for many towns.

The Sweetbriar affordable housing development was mentioned several times by residents. Letendre described it as "a lesson for being prepared."

Sweetbriar in Bay Spring was denied by a Planning Board that really didn’t understand the issue, she said. East Bay CDC appealed the decision to the Housing Appeals Board and had the decision overturned. The case eventually ended up in the state Supreme Court, which sided with the Appeals Board.

The comprehensive plan and the affordable housing plan, both developed since the Sweetbrier battle, “give us a modicum of local control,” said Martin. “But one thing we can’t do is tell an owner what to do with their property.”

Letendre seconded his comment: “You can’t interfere with the property rights of an individual.”

Barrington also can’t develop housing specifically for Barrington residents, Martin said. It must develop housing open to anyone within the income guidelines.

Housing Board member Richard Staples said: "We are always looking for properties and strategies” to meet the state mandate. “If you have a great strategy, give it to us.”

Staples also said that affordable housing units, especially rental units, can allow young Barrington residents to stay in town after they graduate from college or leave home, when their incomes remain below the $67,000 ceiling. He tried to stress that these rental units can be what keeps the children of Barrington parents in their hometown.

He also described affordable housing as a step in the ladder that can lead to home ownership.

Gary Morse May 16, 2012 at 12:00 PM
The specific question I asked last night was how a property tax reduction of as much as 80% was being granted to affordable housing, while every other resident in town must pay the full and fair value in accordance with state law. "Nancy Letendre, an attorney who specializes in housing issues as a member of the Ursillo and Teitz law firm, the town’s solicitors" could not answer the question. The US Census Bureau numbers show that since 2004, RI's population has been on the decline. In view of a declining population, a collapsed housing market, and an overall economy on the skids, it is absurd that we seem to be charging ahead with what can best be described as bad public policy. The Sowams land could have been developed to the taxpayers advantage, but was thwarted by "town officials". See the story at: http://www.barringtonri.com/news/2012/may/15/denied-plans-spur-development-sowams-road/ Is this good public policy for the residents of Barrington??? Gary Morse
Bristol County Anonymous May 16, 2012 at 12:42 PM
That’s some strange finger-pointing by Ms Letendre… “Sweetbriar in Bay Spring was denied by a Planning Board that really didn’t understand the issue, she (Letendre) said.” Letendre is from the same Ursillo and Teitz law firm that represented the Planning Board back then. Perhaps Ms. Letendre knows the answers to these questions: Why was the Sowams Nursery inserted into the Comp Plan as a targeted site for developers to turn into affordable housing (after the town rejected the 7 lot plan)? And, why was the Zion property still included as a potential site for affordable housing in the Comp Plan, ignoring the fact that it the new owners are committed to a different plan? The Comp Plan was last amended, after the Zion property was acquired by the new owners and had announced their new plans for some sort of a “school”. Why hasn’t the town pursued legislative changes at the state level, to change the arbitrary 10% affordable housing laws?
Manifold Witness May 16, 2012 at 01:31 PM
Supporting documentation for this news phrase, please, Mr. Rupp: "An affordable-housing development may never be approved for the Sowams Nursery property off of Sowams Road in Barrington"...
Ignorance is not bliss May 16, 2012 at 01:47 PM
“But one thing we can’t do is tell an owner what to do with their property.” Isn't that exactly what the town did when they denied Sowams Nursery owners previous plans and then targeted the Sowams Nursery project in the town's comprehensive plan as a site for affordable housing? http://www.barringtonri.com/news/2012/may/15/denied-plans-spur-development-sowams-road/
Scott Clark May 16, 2012 at 02:10 PM
That's a great quote Manifold, where's it from? Bristol County Anonymous: that's extremely important, as being discussed in the thread on the BarringtonRI.com site. Why did that happen and what pressure can we push back on the Town. I don't believe there's any one body in town looking at this holistically. That generally means the only people who know what's going on start to finish are the developers. That gives them an unfair advantage over volunteer siloed committees. Until the citizens start paying attention and pushing back :) We want to help the town understand what we think they're signing us all up for so we can empower *then* to fight back. But they did talk last night and previously about this question: "Why hasn’t the town pursued legislative changes at the state level, to change the arbitrary 10% affordable housing laws?" Back during Sweetbriar, the local citizens group both with the town, and then the town by itself, took it all the way to the State Supreme Court to fight against the Sweetbriar development and the concept of the 10% law. They lost that case. I'm still trying to find out exactly on what grounds they lost it. But they've mentioned it enough times now it seems their loathe to fight it again. So far, no other municipality in RI has outright rejected this (even East Greenwich has decided to do *something*), nor fought it. Doesn't seem like Barrington wants to be the one to fight it alone again.
Scott Clark May 16, 2012 at 02:10 PM
Yea that seems contradictory. "We can't tell an owner what to do, but we can tell them what NOT to do"?
Name Withheld May 16, 2012 at 02:12 PM
Interesting article: 'Take the House, Give My Money Back' By William Rupp Email the author March 8, 2012 Owner of Barrington home was driven out of her new house by flooding and mold three weeks after she moved in last year; she's been living out of a suitcase ever since...moved out of her home at 19 Walker Farm Lane, the first affordable housing development in Barrington, on Dec. 8 after the water table rose and flooded her basement. She had moved into the brand new home only about three weeks before that...
Kristine May 16, 2012 at 02:22 PM
From what I understand all of the houses at Walker Farm Road aren't even filled yet they want to add more to Barrington? As a single mother who rents in Barrington, I make just over the $67.000 requirement - add in costs for daycare, etc I won't take home enough to cover a mortgage at $149K so I'd only qualify for the mortgage at $215k..how is this afforadable to someone like me? It's not..just to say I own a home in Barington??
Scott Clark May 16, 2012 at 02:33 PM
That's correct Kristine. Only 7 have been sold. They actually used this as a reason to promote the idea of rental properties because the market is in such sad shape the only developers showing up to even build anything are LMIH-funded developers like EBCDC. Normal market-priced new home developers (or rehabs) aren't even offering plans to the town. Maybe it's because the property sellers are running into the same rejections that Mr Silveira did?
Rob May 16, 2012 at 03:07 PM
Has anyone addressed the issues of traffic on Sowams if 56 new rentals come on line, the need for more teachers, police, etc without much additional tax revenue causing existing tax payers to pay higher taxes. Or building near wetlands, flood zone area (?). I've also heard certain town board member (s) may be pushing this for political reasons (platform to say I did /service accomplished this). Along. with all of the numerous other reasons not to support this plan. I don't see anyone trying to plan this for Nyatt Rd or Rumstick. I wonder why?
Scott Clark May 16, 2012 at 03:19 PM
Yea there's a number of topics that weren't covered last night because that wasn't the correct Board with which to bring them up. As we learned then :) The Zoning, Conservation, and general Town impact issues all seem to have different committees and boards in charge of them. All volunteer. All siloed. At this phase, the conversation is largely about "what is this and how did we get here". But if it gets to the phase where a full development plan is presented by EBCDC, we then enter a period where we bring up the long list of impacts this will have on everything you mentioned, which are all very key points of equal value. The town is looking for the easiest way to do things. Already developed land that was already previously zoned for LMIH dense housing is a lot easier than trying to convert natural land that might be held in conservation trust or have other issues. So a major point of debate right now is to understand HOW these existing plots were zones. We really just want them to know they have citizens that are interested in helping, first by questioning :)
Manifold Witness May 16, 2012 at 04:25 PM
Scott- see 1st line of this article. The danger? Folks may think there’s no need to continue to object. Also, Martin said. “But one thing we can’t do is tell an owner what to do with their property.” But, hey!... the government gladly gave a big "NO" to a 7 house development on the same site, right? It’s time to petition the legislature to repeal this “10%” legislation. It’s an unfunded mandate to shift taxpayer-subsidized housing from cities unprepared suburban locations. It doesn’t contemplate the changes in the economy- the drop in housing prices that have made existing houses more affordable, the high unemployment rate & the fact that “non-affordable” taxpayers can’t afford to subsidize “affordable” housing, etc. See: http://www.housingworksri.org/cities-towns/ Each municipality is listed with the amount of “affordable” units necessary to meet the 10%. Note flaws: 1. The existing number of “affordable” units only counts subsidized units. 2. If a municipality has EXCESS “affordable” units, the count used is ZERO. Thus contributing to a redistribution to the other municipalities which will result in more vacancies in the communities with excess. 3. The municipalities that supposedly do not have sufficient “affordable” housing also do not have sufficient infrastructure. Cost to subsidize “affordable” housing & costs that Rob noted (below) are staggering to the “non-affordable” taxpayers.
Scott Clark May 16, 2012 at 04:35 PM
Exactly right, on all counts. Last night and the distributed flyers that preceded are just snapshots of events. Nancy L did mention that the two biggest problem with this state mandate was that it is unfunded and that there's no clear definition what the penalties are. There is one time ten years ago that the town fought this, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be fought again. And that's only one of the lines of attack. The big challenge is that the town doesn't seem that interested in fighting or opposing. So it currently seems to be driven largely by citizens.
Ignorance is not bliss May 16, 2012 at 04:51 PM
It should also be noted that the town did not publicize the affordable housing forum last night. The only way anyone knew about the meeting was by word of mouth and flyers. I am sure that there a lot of people in town that could have contributed to the discussion and perhaps even provided advice and recommendations. It's unfortunate that the town is not going public with this and insisting on taking the easy way which is not the best way.
Bristol County Anonymous May 16, 2012 at 05:18 PM
Kate Weymouth and June Speakman are often the “holistic” / driving force entity. June and Kate are “Council liaisons” to the various committees and vigorously push their agenda items on a behind-the-scenes basis, and also attend many of the committee meetings. By the time the particular matters advance to other committees, or ultimately reach the Town Council, the decisions are already known, and all we are seeing is a pretense “play”. This explains why often the Town Councilors (Kate and June) vote on important matters with very little discussion. They already know what they want and have already had their discussions – outside the public eye. A former Town Councilor told me about how the Town Council meetings are just a “play”. We need new Town Councilors (except for Mr. DeWitt).
Ignorance is not bliss May 16, 2012 at 05:23 PM
When is the next town council election?
Manifold Witness May 16, 2012 at 06:05 PM
It's time for citizens to step up to provide leadership on this issue. The handwriting is on the wall as to the quickly escalating tax burden on those who have to subsidize all this new subsidized housing. The town government isn't going to represent the taxpayers objectively on this. The town government put this in place (Comprehensive Permitting, Comprehensive Plan elements, etc.). And it is spot zoning even though June says it's not. So do we have an "East Bay Four" willing to provide leadership on this? Or maybe a Sowams 7000? First steps - 1. see the Housing Board of Trustee records on funds, spending, decisions they've made, standards they applied for their decisions, etc. Has anyone read the board's minutes or asked to see their records? These board members are Trustees - they have the highest fiduciary duty. 2. contact with state reps - draft petitions to get this 2004 Act repealed, etc. 3. understand the data & the flaws in the data - see the Housingworksri municipality by municipality - the data is flawed. Pointing out flawed data & the other problems is what forms the bais for the WHEREASes & WHEREFOREs in the petition. The remedy requested is repeal. 4. Review Sweetbriar records - boxes in the vault at Town Hall - to see how the process went, what were the standards of review, etc. Maybe an organizational meeting?
Gary Morse May 16, 2012 at 06:33 PM
The councils handling of the 80% property tax subsidy for affordable housing is a clear indication of lack of due diligence by the council in this matter. The town attorney claims "Barrington is under a state mandate to make 10 percent of its 6,000 housing units affordable to homeowners with incomes of $67,000 and less." Does that mandate include taking from the Barrington resident who lives on $30,000 a year in total household income in order to subsidize a $67,000 a year resident living in affordable housing?? The RI Supreme Court stated: "[T]his Court will not invalidate a statute on constitutional grounds 'unless the challenging party can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the statute at issue is repugnant to a provision of the Rhode Island Constitution.'"   This property tax subsidy absolutely sounds repugnant to me.
Manifold Witness May 16, 2012 at 06:52 PM
Here is the Sweetbriar case - Jeff Brenner was Chairman of the Zoning Board at the time: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/ri-supreme-court/1344948.html
Jack Nugent May 16, 2012 at 08:20 PM
How large a mortgage will a bank give to someone with $67k per year income ?? How many small circa 1950 houses are there in the north end of Barrington ?? Are these part of the 10% ?? How many elderly live in Town with incomes below the $67k guidelines?? Perhaps we need one great 'house swap festival' putting all the lower income elderly into the existing smaller homes. We'll make them take out small mortgages and promise not to resend any of their grown children back into the school system.
Manifold Witness May 16, 2012 at 10:03 PM
One of the problems: in "order for the housing structure to count, it has to have an affordability restriction, and it had to be either constructed new, or rehabilitated using special subsidies. So, the fact that the cost of a home is actually at an affordable price alone does not make it count towards this required 10% goal." http://www.wgtownri.org/departments/planning/affordable_housing.php
Gary Morse May 16, 2012 at 11:53 PM
Last night, the housing committee tried to imply that there is no intrinsic value to developers when a covenant is added to a deed. The committee needs a lesson in long term investments. The deed restriction is for 30 years. Given the deed restriction will vanish at the end of the 30 year period, just like any long term 30 year municipal bond, these properties gain value year by year as the term decreases to the date of maturity, (i.e. the date the 30 year deed restriction turns into a fully marketable condo). The property can be sold at any time before the 30 year period, it's just that the deed restriction goes along with it for any remaining years. Make no mistake, investors will know how to place a value on these properties at any time over the next 30 years. Given that 30 year treasuries are now trading below 3%, I repeat my claim that with a property tax subsidy paid for by Barrington residents, this is a developers dream.
Ts9x May 17, 2012 at 01:25 AM
 The town needs to assess the need and geography of the town before blindly pursuing the construction of additional affordable housing.  There is a 10% mandate from the state to build but no consideration for open space , we barely have a forest in town and just knocked one down to build sweet briar.  do we need additional housing? This is a recession and our real estate values have plummeted due to an over supply of housing.  We can't find anyone to buy into walker farm.  Let's talk about spending money on the schools , 1.5mil allocated for a full day kindergarten program and funding to fix up athletic feilds. The housing can WAIT. There is no mandate stating when we need to have the housing built.  Also, we cannot fill the current new units which only bring the town to 2% of a total requirement of 10%.  Adding 8% new affordable housing is financial miss management of the board. Since the 10% requirement was put in place the average home price in town is has dropped to $269K. Clearly there is plenty of affordable units available. We need to reprioritize town goals and confront the state to amend the affordable housing rule based on the nessesity of open space, real estate values have dropped.  adding to the over supply of homes on the market is fueling the problem. Finally, drive thru option makes a lot of sense for the number of parents in town. Lets get behind creating a new space for senior services / opal center and expand the library. 
Ts9x May 17, 2012 at 01:25 AM
Rather than putting resources toward housing, I am proposing we empower a committee to challenge the states affordable housing mandate.
Manifold Witness May 17, 2012 at 02:01 AM
Yes, Ts9x... and it would appear that there are other municipalities that would join in an effort to challenge the "affordable" housing statutes. A government committee is not the way to go, however. Nothing will get done. It will be like the Ad Hoc Tax Committee - they didn't do what they were supposed to do for the 12/31/10 reval that was supposed to be "remedial". So now they're playing around with how to get the required standards in place for the 12/31/14 reval. Instead of just turning to the Tax Assesor & saying, "Give us the standards now". Many Government committees are in the Town Council's pocket. And the Town Council wants this "affordable" housing. So a government committee is not the way to go. Key individuals must show leadership to get with other key individuals in other municipalites who are on the same page. And then get the legislators to get it done on a fast timetable. The "non-affordable" taxpayers who are subsidizing this fiasco can't take much more.
Name Withheld May 17, 2012 at 01:02 PM
Don't feel bad about not qualifying, Kristine. It may not be the bargain you think it is. Some people who did qualify wish they never had.

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