SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The Town Council in South Kingstown met Aug. 13 with members of the town’s Housing Authority to review challenges the body, and the town, face in trying to provide affordable housing.
“Affordable housing is a problem nationwide and here in Rhode Island,” Town Manager Rob Zarnetske told the council in the hour-long work session. “We have a dramatic shortage of housing in Rhode Island and in South Kingstown.”
For several years, affordable housing officials have focused on development in the villages such as Wakefield and Kingston while trying to preserve rural character in the outlying areas, Zarnetske said.
“Our challenge is to figure out how to continue to improve those villages while addressing this problem,” he said.
The town has 612 units of affordable housing as defined by state law, according to Rhode Island Housing. That’s 5.6 percent of total housing stock in town.
It’s slightly more than half of the state’s directive that municipalities should provide 10 percent of housing stock as affordable.
“The state wants us to build out about twice as many – about 1,200 units,” Zarnetske said.
Most of the town’s housing is designated for senior citizens, with a significant shortage of homes for families. Affordable housing also is clumped in large rental blocks such as apartment complexes.
Part of the problem with developing more affordable housing is tied to restrictive zoning in town, with about three percent of land zoned for commercial use, and 75 percent zoned for large housing lots.
Facing the challenge is a three-part effort for the town: Building new homes, improving substandard dwellings and preserving existing affordable housing units, Zarnetske said.
About 20 percent of homes in South Kingstown are valued at less than $225,000, he said. That makes them affordable units, but the state does not give the town credit for them as affordable because of how the state law works, he added.
“Those folks didn’t buy them as affordable units, they never qualified through a state program and most importantly, there is no deed restriction making them affordable units,” he said.
Math also doesn’t work in the town’s favor with new housing units. Under the state’s Comprehensive Permit Program, developers can qualify for streamlined permitting if they designate 25 percent of new housing in a project as affordable units. But using that ratio, thousands of units of housing would need to be built to make up the town’s 650-unit deficit. If the town used current zoning to build on every lot in town, only 4,000 could be built, according to Zarnetske.
“That formula doesn’t work if you’re trying to preserve the rural character,” he said.
The town’s Housing Authority plays an important role in current affordable stock and in helping people get approved for such housing.
The authority administers 70 units in three local housing complexes as well as 80 housing choice vouchers in town and in surrounding towns, housing board member Maureen Egan said.
“We have about 10 or 11 people out now looking for housing,” she said. “We’re working diligently with them to try to find housing.”
Eligibility is based on income, with some poverty-level renters eligible for $50 monthly payments. Priority is also given to local residents, then homeless veterans and disabled applicants.
In 10 years there have been only three evictions, she said.
Capital funding is provided by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development.
“We’re never sure of how much money we’re going to get, but in the last few years we’ve done significant improvements to our grounds,” Egan said, including new siding, interior renovations and handicapped accessibility improvements.
Future plans include a laundry facility for Champagne Heights and Fournier Estates residents, upgrading electrical utilities and providing on-site educational programs such as parenting education and basic finances.
With her social services background, Egan said the biggest challenge she sees is substance abuse issues, along with educational and finance needs.
“Those kind of basic needs really worry me,” she said.
Zarnetske also identified a parcel of several acres on the Champagne Heights housing property that have the potential for future affordable development. What that would look like remains to be seen.
“It would require cooperation between the town and housing authority to achieve,” he said.
Discussion also touched on the 60 surveillance cameras in the three residential sites. The authority installed them at the request of residents, members said. They said the cameras are used for safety and to help police in investigations and are not focused on individual residents.
“There was quite a bit of drug-dealing and crime going on and (residents) were concerned about it. But we would never violate a person’s privacy,” Egan said.