New push for affordable housing

Sun, 01/16/2022 - 7:15am
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The Town Council is in the process of setting up a community forum to discuss affordable housing on Block Island. It has been well-documented that there is a shortage of year-round housing that is affordable and attainable for working island residents. Many people who
rent engage in the seasonal housing “shuffle,” as winter accommodations become weekly summer rentals fetching a much higher rate for the owner. It is a diverse group of transient year-round residents, with small business owners, town employees, construction workers, teachers, and numerous other professions represented, all with a need for permanent year-round housing.
Island resident Chris Warfel wrote a letter to the Town Council in December, and finally got onto the agenda on January 4. In his letter, Warfel suggests identifying town-owned or non-profit organization-owned land that could be used to build affordable rental units for Block Island residents. Warfel identifies the town, the power company, water company, sewer company, Block Island Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy, Block Island Conservancy, and the airport as potential partners with land that could be used for this purpose.
He spoke to the council on Jan. 4 and said the town needed to be “aggressive” in addressing this issue.
First Warden André Boudreau agreed with the need for what he called “workforce housing,” which would be “attainable.” He also said the people who needed this housing also needed to come to the town meetings to make their voices heard. To that end, several citizens have formed an online group called “Block Island affordable/attainable housing” to spread information about Town Council meetings and other initiatives, as well as provide a forum for suggestions and ideas regarding the housing shortage on Block Island.

Council Member Keith Stover suggested holding a community forum to talk about what people wanted and needed, with Second Warden Sven Risom agreeing that a forum was important.

Council Member Martha Ball said that the “fight” to get the zoning regulations passed for the Section 513 accessory apartments was so difficult at the time, it had been hard to go through with anything else. Section 513 accessory apartments are intended for year-round rentals, and are up to the homeowner to build and maintain. Ball pointed out that the zoning regulations for 513s were enacted 20 years ago, and the “mood is different now.” Risom agreed, saying the town needed to figure out the “next iteration” of affordable housing.

The topic came up again at the council meeting on January 5, with Stover suggesting that the council approach the state legislature about the town assessing a tax that would go directly to the Housing Board. The Block Island Housing Board works to provide affordable housing opportunities to year-round residents. Typically, the Housing Board has built homes for sale, although its newest project, which is still in the planning stages, could include rental units.

Currently, the Housing Board is funded through a seasonal house rental tax of one percent of the prevailing market rate, assessed to each rental home owner. The board also receives donations from various sources.

Boudreau called the year-round housing situation a “crisis” at the meeting on January 5, saying that he hoped to get funding to fight for “workforce housing.”

Stover agreed, saying that there needed to be a “short, medium, and long-term plan” and that the town needed to “fund it regularly.”
Town Manager Maryanne Crawford suggested that the council move forward with having a community forum, and suggested asking Housing Board Chair Cindy Pappas to be part of the team leading the forum. Crawford also told the council the deadline to get items onto the state legislature’s agenda is usually in March, so she suggested having the forum in February to allow time to write up any requests for the
legislature.