Surprise role for the housing board

Thu, 07/15/2021 - 3:30pm
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Section 513 of the New Shoreham Zoning Ordinances addresses accessory apartments, stating in its first paragraph: “This Section is intended to provide year-round rental housing for year-round residents, seasonal rental housing for those deriving income from employment on the Island and at the same time provide supplemental income for homeowners from the rental of an accessory apartment, and to provide property tax incentives for accessory apartments to be voluntarily deed restricted for affordable housing.”

Given the acute housing shortage on Block Island, accessory apartments can provide some much needed relief for those who work and live on the island year-round.
And with the tax incentives promised in the opening paragraph, homeowners can clearly benefit from making their accessory apartment affordable as well.

The ordinance goes on to outline the tax benefit, specifying that the fair market value of the accessory apartment shall not be included as real estate or improvements
upon which real estate taxes are assessed and collected by the town. The caveat is that the homeowner must have documentation from the Block Island Housing Board provided to the tax assessor verifying that the requirements of the section have been met, including a deed restriction for the accessory apartment to remain affordable.

The ordinance stipulates that the housing board will adopt the rules and regulations for the administration of the provisions of the section, and also stipulates that once an affordable accessory apartment is deed-restricted, the restriction cannot be removed without a certificate from the housing board attesting that a withdrawal
fee has been paid to the tax collector equal to ten times the average annual tax saving received.
There’s just one problem: The housing board was unaware of their potential involvement with 513 accessory apartments.
“It puts a fair amount of responsibility on the housing board, as we look at section B.1, which I was oblivious to,” Chair Cindy Pappas stated at the July 13 meeting of the housing board. “It’s been on the books since 2006,” she explained.
“I was surprised to see that 2006 date and that I hadn’t picked up on that in the last 15 years,” board member John Spier said. He continued: “That’s a pretty substantial tax abatement, and I’m not sure we should be doing that to the rest of the tax payers.”

It is unclear if anyone has taken advantage of the tax abatement, however.

When asked by The Times how many 513 accessory apartments were considered affordable and able to qualify for the abatement, the Building and Zoning department declined to answer, asking instead for questions to be emailed. One official in the clerk’s office indicated no one had asked for the affordable accessory apartment tax abatement, so they had not been doing any.

This would seem to indicate that all fifty-plus accessory apartments on the island are not deed-restricted as affordable housing, especially since the housing board has apparently not certified any. But the building department is looking into it.

According to the ordinance, Section 513 status must be renewed every three years, and building officials are currently contacting homeowners to set up appointments for inspections and to get paperwork in order. With a new staff after the retirement of Marc Tillson, the building department is working hard to play catch-up.

Additionally, the Town Council recently voted to include the costs of fiber drops to 513 accessory apartments in the socialized construction costs of the island-wide broadband network, so everyone is keen on figuring out exactly where all the 513s are, and if they still qualify as a 513 accessory apartment. All this scrutiny over who gets a broadband drop may very well have led to the realization that the housing board has a potential role in 513 accessory apartments.
In any case, after the initial shock, the housing board is looking into the matter, hoping to gather more information and work on it this fall in conjunction with the Planning Board and the town. As Spier said, “We’re running on an information deficit here.”