Block Island’s housing pioneers

Tue, 12/21/2021 - 7:15am
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There is a small nonprofit organization on Block Island that has had an oversized impact on the island over the past forty-plus years: Block Island Economic Development Foundation, Inc. Established in 1977, BIED’s primary objective is “to promote adequate housing opportunities to retain a year-round population on Block Island, to promote reasonable-cost energy and utilities, to promote education in areas related to the economic and environmental well-being of Block Island.”
BIED has worked tirelessly on the island to achieve its objectives, and has a slew of accomplishments, including establishing the Farmers Market and the Spring Street Gallery. BIED serves as the parent organization of the farmers market, which is held twice a week in the summers. The gallery works as a cooperative of local artists and craftspeople who use the space to display their wares in exchange for volunteering at the gallery. BIED leases the building, provides a manager, and has made numerous improvements to the building over the years.

BIED has focused much of its energy on housing over the years, beginning with the E. Searles Ball Memorial Housing in 1989. This is a 16-unit rental project for persons of low or moderate income. Rent is based on the occupants’ verified income. BIED Housing Corp, a wholly-owned subsidiary, manages the property for BIED, handling maintenance and upkeep, as well as capital improvements.
BIED has also built affordable homes for purchase, including Beacon Hill Lane in 1992, which consists of seven three-bedroom houses sold to year-round families. There are deed restrictions on the properties to keep them “affordable,” but BIED president Gerry Pierce told The Block Island Times that the restrictions are “not in perpetuity,” and will eventually run out. Pierce said that changes in state law since that time ensure that affordable housing stays affordable.
Old Harbor Meadow is another BIED project, completed in 2003. It consists of eight affordable houses and the Community Center located behind Aldo’s Bakery. The Block Island Early Learning Center is housed in the center and provides affordable preschool and daycare services. The Community Center also hosts numerous programs through the Senior Advisory Committee, and is available for parties, meetings, and gatherings.
The last project completed by BIED is the West Side Road Development, also known as the Westside 20. This is the largest affordable housing project on Block Island and consists of 20 three-bedroom houses sold to residents at affordable prices. Major funding for the Westside 20 came from the Rhode Island Housing Corporation with assists coming from U.S. Rural Development Corporation and the Block Island Land Trust.
BIED has financed its projects through numerous grants, some loans, and many generous donations. In 2002, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a law establishing a one-percent tax on seasonal rentals on Block Island to provide a ready funding source for affordable housing on Block Island. The Block Island Housing Board was created to administer the money this tax generates, and has completed several housing projects including the recent Cherry Hill Lane Development. The Housing Board is also working on a new project at the O’Brien property that abuts E. Searles Ball. The Housing Board projects have focused solely on sales thus far, but the board is looking at the possibility of rentals with the next project.
According to Pierce, BIED is working with the Housing Board to grant an easement to allow access through E. Searles Ball to the O’Brien property. He said BIED is also looking to add more rental units to E. Searles Ball, and is looking to recruit new members to work on future projects.
Anyone interested in getting involved with Block Island Economic Development can contact Gerry or Gail Pierce at (401) 466-5470.