Town Council goes to Providence

Fri, 04/29/2022 - 6:30am

Members of the New Shoreham Town Council, along with Housing Board Chair Cindy Pappas, Town Manager Maryanne Crawford and advocate Alicia Miro, attended a hearing before the Rhode Island House Committee on Municipal Government and Housing on April 12, to plead the case for House Bill 7723.

The bill, introduced by Representative Blake Filippi, seeks to change the affordable housing eligibility standards for New Shoreham to include households making up to 140 percent of the area median income (AMI).
Affordable housing eligibility standards are set by the state and are based on median incomes published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The income limit throughout Rhode Island is currently set at 120 percent of AMI for fiscal year 2022. This translates to an income limit of $125, 880 for a family of four to participate in affordable housing programs on Block Island through the Housing Board. The goal of the bill is to raise the eligible income level on Block Island to 140 percent of AMI, or $151,200 for a family of four.
The bill recognizes “the on-the-ground-realities” of Block Island, Filippi told the committee in his opening remarks. He listed the high cost of living on the island, as well as the high cost of housing, with the average cost of a Block Island home easily exceeding $1 million. Filippi said there was a “massive gap” of people whose income is too high to qualify for any of the Housing Board’s affordable housing options, but who still cannot afford to buy one of these million-dollar homes.
Filippi said that families making “200 percent of AMI can’t afford to buy a house on Block Island.”
Municipalities are grouped together for AMI based on reported income, and Block Island is in a group with Hopkinton and Westerly, with an AMI of $108,000 for fiscal year 2022. Newport, Portsmouth, and Middletown form another group with an AMI of $116,600. The rest of the municipalities in the state form the third group, with an AMI of $97,600.
Filippi pointed out that people in Newport, Portsmouth, and Middletown could make more money than people on Block Island and still be eligible for affordable housing, even though Block Island has the “highest cost of living in the state.”
First Warden André Boudreau told the committee that while people may think of Block Island as a place to vacation, there were still “social issues, particularly housing insecurity.” He said the lack of housing was “straining the fabric of the community,” as the town itself struggled to hire employees, and with island children and families “couch-surfing” at the beginning and end of each school year. Boudreau said the town was merely asking for “more tools in the toolbox,” in the struggle to meet the housing needs of the island.
Pappas spoke to the committee next, saying that raising the eligibility limits would provide one more way to foster a “viable, year-round community.” She said bthat in July and August the island was seen as a “wealthy man’s paradise,” complete with “yachts and fancy cars.” She contrasted that image with the reality of the winter months, when the year-round residents are not comprised of “doctors, lawyers, and
CEOs of major corporations.” Instead, she described the community as being made up of teachers, bank tellers, construction workers, waitresses, and “families that will never be able to contemplate” buying a home for $1.5 million.
She described the “island shuffle” that Boudreau had mentioned, as families that are able to find places to rent in the winter, are “priced out” in the summer tourist season when prices dramatically increase.

Pappas described commuting as impossible due to the limited ferry service in the winter. As such, workers on the island cannot “find affordable housing” in the next town over and “travel for their jobs.” She said the bill acknowledges the “reality of the higher cost of living on Block Island,” which included the “island factor” of the higher cost of “getting supplies to our shores.”
Committee Second-Vice Chair June Speakman asked if the bill would increase the number of units produced by developers on the island. Pappas responded that Block Island does not have the “economic climate” for large developments, with no large tracts of land available and a limited sole source aquifer.
Speakman said it seemed that the bill would “make more people eligible for the same number of units.” She said she was concerned that people would “fall off the bottom of the scale,” if more people were qualified at the top of the scale. Speakman said she worried about the person making 80 percent AMI who would have to compete with the person making 140 percent AMI, and that there would be “more tickets in the hat” for the lottery system the island uses to award affordable housing opportunities.

Melina Lodge, Executive Director of the Housing Network of Rhode Island, spoke in opposition to the bill. She clarified that the AMI numbers are set by the federal government and are based on incomes reported in each municipality. She stated that 37.5 percent of year-round residents on Block Island report income below 80 percent AMI, and those residents could be served without changing the legislation. She said that her office estimates that even with Block Island’s affordable housing stock, which represents 11 percent of island housing, there are still 102 households that currently qualify, and “have not been served by affordable housing.”
Lodge went on to say that the median household income reported on Block Island is just under $60,000. She said that the town can “invest its resources” and produce units that are priced for the 140 percent AMI family, if it so chooses.

“And it has, there are units at 140 percent AMI currently,” Lodge said. She was referring to the Housing Board’s development at Cherry Hill Lane, in which applicants were allowed to qualify at 140 percent AMI. Those units do not count toward the island’s affordable housing stock, however, since they do not stick to the 120 percent guidelines enunciated by the state.
Lodge said that her position was that the state’s definition of eligibility should not be expanded for Block Island, as it would encourage “other municipalities that want to serve higher-income households.” She suggested serving the lowest income Rhode Islanders first, and then “perhaps when they are taken care of, we would be more amenable to the suggestion” to raise the eligibility requirements.
Filippi countered that it did “not make sense” for Block Island to be categorized with Hopkinton and Westerly, with the same limitations on income when the cost of living on the island is so much higher.
Lodge answered that since the census data showed reported median household income on Block Island of $60,000, the categories were “not totally out of whack,” and were in fact “aligned.”
Lodge reiterated that it was “certainly within the purview of the municipality” to build units priced, deed restricted, and targeted toward the population that makes 140 percent of AMI. She said the challenge was getting the state to count those units toward the affordable housing stock.