Houses houses everywhere, and not a room to rent

Fri, 04/27/2018 - 9:45am

The good news is that I believe we, as a community, are now openly talking about the shortage of rental housing. While the island is a leader in affordable housing and the Housing Board and Block Island Economic Development have done a very good job, I feel we now need to expand our focus to develop both affordable and attainable rental and ownership opportunities. While the Doctor’s House was an early stake in the ground, the major issue, in my opinion, has not been fully discussed. 

I was saddened the other day when June Regan had to leave the island because she was unable to find year-round rental housing after having worked for the town and island businesses for over 25 years. My feelings were not only for June, but for many others that, without island-wide action, may follow in her wake. I hope we are now ready to work on a master housing plan that includes enforcement of current regulations, the development of attainable rental housing and the continued development of affordable housing. None of these alone are enough. 

I believe this issue is the result of many factors but most important is the absolute cost of a house on the island. In addition, many of the new home buyers do not want to rent their house year-round if at all. And if they do want to rent, then it is only during the high summer weeks so they can come and enjoy their house in the fall/spring. For those that live here, the problem is further compounded as wage rates have increased slowly while home prices have skyrocketed. Lastly, very few rentals have been added to the housing inventory given the economics. It is frightening to think that a $20, $30 or even a $45 per hour wage does not support the purchase of an island home. And for those “lucky enough” to get a mortgage and buy a home, the cost of home ownership is very high given the mortgage interest, taxes, insurance, etc. 

I believe we must start addressing this problem today and be ready to invest in our community. First, I feel we should approve the construction of two houses on the Thomas property that will provide housing for seven town employees from town hall, the police station, the school and the Medical Center. Then I believe we must make housing the number one agenda topic for the next year-and-a-half and solve this as a community. While we need to continue developing affordable housing we also must create year-round rental housing that is attainable. Not only is this an issue for year-round residents but it is also a critical factor in recruiting new managers to the island. BIPCo addressed housing by building a nice apartment and the town was able to recruit a top-tier doctor by significantly renovating the doctor’s house. Both of these solutions were essential in the recruiting process.

One of the two buildings proposed for the Thomas property will be placed on the current foundation of the Thomas House and include six bedrooms and six baths with a common kitchen, dining and living area (drawings for the Thomas Land on this page) for an estimated cost of $1,050,000. As detailed in the Thomas House drawings, the second house will have three bedrooms/two baths and will be located in the southeast corner of the property for an estimated cost of $450,000. The proposed configuration meets zoning regulations and also allows the town to build two more dwellings should the property be dedicated to affordable housing in the future. 

While I believe my thoughts only begin to scratch the surface, I strongly feel that we need to start now and continue to push for year-round rental housing for both the young as well as senior year-round residents. Many of the larger employers on the island addressed this issue years ago and have bought, renovated or built housing for their employees and I am confident that we can learn from these investments. At June’s farewell party, I committed to her that I would help drive for a solution to the housing shortage. While none of us have the answer, I ask you to join me and push for more rental and attainable housing for year-round residents.

Sven Risom is a member of the Town Council and the Planning Board.