Town Council leads workshop on housing

Fri, 05/13/2022 - 10:45am
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The Town Council held a workshop on Wednesday, May 4 on the subject of housing. The need for more affordable and attainable housing has been an issue for decades, and while the town and the not-for-profit Block Island Economic Development Foundation have made strides over the years, the most recent spike in high-priced real estate sales has
made home attainment even more distant for year-round working residents.
To further gauge the needs for housing, the town has been conducting a needs survey over the past couple of weeks. As of the time of the meeting, 28 responses had been
received, and Town Planner Alison Ring presented the results so far. (It has been decided to keep the survey up on the town website for a few more weeks to get more feedback.)
Ring said that the 28 respondents were fairly evenly split between those who wished to rent, and those who wished to own a home. Eight had children under 18 years old, with a total of 11 children. Seven households would like housing with at least three bedrooms, and one stated they were in need of handicapped accessible housing.
Twelve respondents said their housing is currently not year-round, with 11 saying they were required to relocate seasonally. And nine said they live with another household due to lack of alternatives.
On the economic scale, 20 respondents said their incomes were below 100 percent of area median income (AMI), and three were above 140 percent of AMI, making them ineligible for “affordable housing” ownership. Currently the threshold is 120 percent of AMI. (The town has proposed legislation at the state level to up the threshold to 140
percent.)
Between the Block Island Housing Board’s latest project across from Ball O’Brien Park and land available at the town-owned Thomas property across from the Block Island School, Ring said “hopefully” 20 more housing units could be built out on those two properties.
One challenge for the Housing Board is financing. So far, their model has been to build homes for sale, with the sales proceeds financing the project. Rentals would require
upfront financing and the investment would take many, many years to recoup.
It should be noted that the following is an attempt to organize the ideas and challenges raised in a discussion that lasted over two hours, and is not necessarily in chronological
order.
While state funds for housing are fairly likely to become available in the next state budget, and the town would like to tap into that, Housing Board Chair Cindy Pappas said that it was necessary to have a planned project ready to go when applying for funds. “It’s very competitive” to get the “attention of the state.” She added that it would be helpful to have a consultant or dedicated person who knows the “process and the pitfalls.”
There was much discussion on tweaking the current zoning mechanisms for year-round housing – sections 513 and 405. Section 513 allows for a homeowner to add an
accessory apartment on their property that is restricted to being rented to a year-round resident. But those apartments are limited to two bedrooms and a total area of 1200 square feet. Since its enactment, 50 accessory apartments have been “permitted,” according to Ring, and there are currently 49 of them.
Section 405 is more specifically for affordable housing, and allows a not-for-profit developer or public entity, such as the Housing Board, to quadruple the allowable density for the amount of land.
Ring said that the rental units under section 513 “cost the town nothing,” and asked how “we can facilitate” the creation of them.
There were many suggestions on how to amend section 513 including allowing for three bedrooms and more than 1200 square feet.
Town Councilor Keith Stover thought that in some cases homeowners may desire to add an accessory apartment but there may be a need for capital. He also suggested that
it could make adding a 513 easier for property owners if the town could provide some potential designs for these units – sample plans that are “off the shelf,” and that “meet the
checklist.” As a homeowner, he said: “The most intimidating thing is getting a plan together.”
Second Warden Sven Risom suggested educating homeowners that were new to the island that adding an accessory apartment was possible. “Private can do [a project] much faster than public projects.”
Others pushed back that people purchasing a multi-million-dollar second home might not be interested. Some suggested adding “incentives” in the form of property tax relief, or relief from density and setback requirements.
Both Stover and Risom emphasized that some of the ideas, such as tax incentives, or adding an “impact tax” such as a two-percent transfer tax require legislation at the state
level and were therefore long-term solutions, especially as this year’s state legislative session would be ending at the end of June and it was too late to introduce additional legislation.
First Warden Andre Boudreau felt that adding a two-percent transfer fee would “drive prices even higher.”
“My opinion is let’s do 513,” said Risom. “Let’s do one thing at a time and do it right.”
There were some at the meeting suggesting that money could be diverted from the Block Island Land Trust, which currently collects a three-percent real estate transfer
fee for the purposes of land conservation, something that would not be allowable without amending the Land Trust’s enabling legislation. Some suggested that land conservation had added to the problem of high real estate prices and thus the inability for residents to attain housing.
Others strongly defended the conservation groups, especially resident Keith Lewis, who was instrumental in getting the legislation passed in 1986 to create the Land Trust.
There was lots of resistance at the time he said towards the end of the meeting, and although there were other towns seeking the same legislation, “we were the only ones that
prevailed.”
“I truly believe the island would be gone by now if we didn’t have that legislation,” said Lewis.