Manager’s search highlights housing issues

Wed, 11/22/2017 - 10:15am

First Warden Ken Lacoste said his experience trying to find housing for new Town Manager Edward Roberge was eye-opening.

As a result, the Town Council has made addressing the housing issue a priority. Roberge himself noted the housing issue in his communication with The Block island Times, and said that he will make it one of his priorities as Town Manager. 

“A long-term sustainable solution is needed,” Roberge said.

Throughout the past year, many other town boards and committees have also addressed their concerns about the lack of affordable housing on the island.

Facilities Manager Sam Bird recently told the Town Council that there are four options that could be considered to address the housing dilemma: (1) do nothing, which wasn’t applicable; (2) construct new housing, or build something in partnership with an outside entity; (3) purchase existing housing; or (4) leasing properties.

Bird said that one problem with constructing new housing is the exorbitant cost of building on the island. “It’s a cautionary tale,” he said. The Council and Bird then debated the pros ands cons of building versus buying. After a lengthy discussion, the conclusion seemed to be that buying property would be the best option at the moment.

Properties like the Davidson House, and Coast Guard Station were bandied about before Bird seemed to surprise the Town Council by informing them that the Fred Benson Beach Pavilion renovations could include the addition of three apartment units. Bird said the units could be added to the plans and include two units on the north end of the building, and one unit on the south end.

Chamber of Commerce President Kathy Szabo said providing housing at the Beach Pavilion would be “opening up a can of worms,” as the young seasonal employees that might live there during the summer might be prone to having parties on the premises. Szabo’s family owns the concession business at the Beach Pavilion.

The discussion highlights the town’s need for more affordable housing. That topic was discussed at the Council’s Nov. 1 meeting, when Councilor André Boudreau noted the misuse of two affordable housing units at what is commonly called the West Side 20 development. Boudreau said the homes are not occupied by their original owners, which is against its bylaws.

The Council is supporting a letter sent by the Block Island Economic Development Foundation to the West Lane Homeowners Association’s President, Claire McElderry, asking her to enforce the Association’s bylaws. BIED, a non-profit group, administers the West Side 20 affordable housing program. 

Second Warden Norris Pike, who resigned during the Town Council’s Nov. 15 meeting, said the town needs to be aggressive in its search for housing, and should fund an initiative to solve the problem. The solution needs to be “more than a Band-Aid,” he said. “I think it’s time for the town to bite the bullet, and address the problem in a meaningful way.”

Planning Board Vice Chair Sven Risom said he could sense the Council’s “conviction” in trying to find a solution. “I’ve heard more conviction here” than I have before, said Risom. “That’s a good sign.”

In response, Councilor André Boudreau said, “Yes. There’s conviction.” 

Risom asked the Town Council to provide the Planning Board with some “framework,” or parameters, to aid the search for ideas, or solutions to the housing problem.

“It’s the framework that we want from the Planning Board,” said Lacoste. Risom agreed, and said the Planning Board could establish a framework.

“Knowing the need is the first step” to addressing the problem, said Lacoste. Everyone seemed to agree that defining the need, and then locating potential properties was the first step to finding a solution.