Council debates affordable housing ‘requirement’ in train zone

Council debates affordable housing ‘requirement’ in train zone

PAWTUCKET – Does the use of a particular word really hurt the city?

It’s a question City Council members disagreed on last week as they debated how to keep pending developments from pricing lower income residents out of Pawtucket.

The council reached a temporary stalemate over a resolution encouraging all development around a future new train station off Pine Street and Goff Avenue (set to begin construction in 2020) to truly foster the creation of an economically diverse community.

City Councilor Tim Rudd said the proposed resolution was born out of concerns he shares with Councilor Meghan Kallman that local rents will climb out of control if officials don’t put safeguards in place.

The sticking point came when Rudd said he wanted to amend what was officially a nonbinding resolution from the council to “require” developers to incorporate more affordable housing rather than to strongly “encourage” it.

Other council members, including Terry Mercer and Mark Wildenhain, questioned whether such strong wording would essentially make the resolution binding and discourage development. The resolution went from “encouraging it to demanding it,” said Wildenhain, something he couldn’t get behind.

The city will be asking developers to pour money into projects knowing that 10 percent of their income will be limited for 30 years, said Wildenhain.

Councilor John Barry III also wondered whether some other phrasing, like the council having the “intent” that 10 percent of housing in the area be affordable, might be more appropriate. The council could impact financing for projects by using the wrong word, he said.

“Why use language that doesn’t hold water in a resolution?” he asked.

“But it holds water for me with my constituents,” replied Rudd, as it would send the message that he supports the people of the community who are in fear of being forced out.

In Rudd’s thinking, the resolution needed to more clearly show that the City Council “stands firm” about keeping “the integrity of the neighborhood” and that officials shouldn’t be allowing displacement to happen. It’s a beautiful thing if high-end individuals like doctors and lawyers can coexist with single parents in the same environment, he said.

Rudd suggested amending the resolution to require a minimum of 10 percent affordable units for any future new development within the Transit Oriented Development zoning district, or TOD. Affordable units would be for those earning up to 80 percent of the area’s median income, and would need to stay affordable for 30 years.

Though nonbinding, the resolution “shows our intention as a body to work toward a specific goal,” said Kallman. Pawtucket’s TOD is “at the edge of a big growth,” she said, “and this is our job to make sure people are taken care of.” Developers could still be getting 80 percent of market rent on the 10 percent portion, she noted.

Rudd’s proposed amendment ultimately was not taken up, as the council postponed action on the resolution until August. Other council members weren’t willing to support the amendment but were willing to consider modified the wording of the resolution.

Rudd’s proposed amendment also prohibited “in lieu” payments from developers who don’t want to meet the minimum requirement.

The council asked new Commerce Director Jeanne Boyle what she thought of using the word “require” in the resolution. She cautioned that it’s difficult to make projects work economically, and councilors don’t want to unintentionally “kill the golden goose” by creating a disincentive. The council can “get the point across” on a more inclusionary district without hurting chances for new investment.

Boyle questioned Rudd’s opposition to “in lieu” payments, saying that revenue could be used to promote larger affordable housing projects within the TOD.

Rudd said he worries that developers would simply choose to buy their way out of the affordable housing requirement and the money wouldn’t be used to promote more affordable housing.

Kallman and Rudd noted that a 10 percent requirement on affordable housing is pretty low compared to some other parts of the country.

Comments

My take away from this is that the new Commerce Director favors developers over taxpayers and residents. I think a lot of people in our city government are confused about the roles that they should be playing in the city economy. The golden goose in all this is the tax giveaways and millions in direct aid from the RI Commerce Corporation(they did 38 Studios) that will be given to uberwealthy developers.