Affordable commitment

Annika Daluz and her family are happy tenants at the Branch Blackstone affordable housing development in Pawtucket.

PAWTUCKET – This city is committed to making development of affordable housing a point of greater focus through use of federal stimulus funds, says Mayor Donald Grebien, with firm plans to meet and exceed the state’s standard of 10 percent.

Grebien has released the Pawtucket Affordable Housing report for 2021-2022, the result of an initiative to create a cohesive document outlining current efforts to track affordable housing projects in the city and set goals moving forward.

The city recently purchased 205 Owen Ave. and 160 Beechwood Ave. for affordable housing development, wrote Grebien in an introduction to the report last week. The request for proposals from developers on both those properties was posted on Dec. 13.

Pawtucket continues to make progress, as detailed in the report, said Grebien, but much more needs to be done, which is why he’s committing to building and restoring the 322 additional units the city needs to reach the state’s goal of 10 percent affordable housing in every community under the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act.

In this fiscal year, another 12 affordable units are expected to come online, he said, and another 200 units are at various stages in the development pipeline. To bring planned projects to fruition, additional city, state and federal investment will be needed, he said.

Pawtucket will use funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to create a dedicated commitment to affordable housing projects in the city, he said, hopefully complementing similar ARPA investments being considered by the governor and General Assembly.

The lack of affordable housing in Pawtucket and the state is one of the most important issues impacting families, the local community, and the growth of the local economy, said Grebien.

“While we have been working hard to increase the supply of affordable apartment units and homes across Pawtucket, too many of our residents are cost burdened, meaning they are spending more than 30 percent of their annual income on housing costs,” he wrote.

According to HousingWorks RI’s 2020 Housing Fact Book, 38 percent of Pawtucket homeowners and 48 percent of local renters are cost burdened. When those people are forced to spend so much of their income on housing, it means less money spent invested in the local community while putting stress on families to make ends meet.

“Without more affordable housing, many Pawtucket families will continue to struggle financially, and our city’s employers will be challenged to attract and retain the workforce they need to live and work nearby, while competing globally,” he wrote.

Housing is considered affordable when it costs no more than 30 percent of one’s gross income. For a minimum wage earner working full-time hours, an affordable apartment would cost no more than $468 per month, while for a median-income household in the state, an affordable home would be no more than $1,421 per month.

Pawtucket’s current percentage of deed-restricted affordable housing is 8.9 percent, counting all 30-year deed-restricted housing units as a percentage of total housing units. The total doesn’t tell the full story, noted Grebien, as there are an additional 143 deed-restricted affordable units not included because they were funded under a program with a 15-year requirement for affordability.

There are 2,780 total units in Pawtucket that are insured and/or subsidized by HUD.

The city, working with the City Council, Pawtucket Housing Authority, Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency, and Pawtucket/Central Falls Development have been making real progress increasing the number of affordable units, including:

• The Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency using $615,980 in Community Development Block Grant funding to produce 39 affordable units over the last decade;

• The city helping 143 families with a first-time homebuyers’ program in the last 10 years, providing more than $894,000 in help to make the dream of homeownership a reality;

• And the city investing $3.2 million over the past 10 years into the HOME Investment Partnership Program to create 37 new deed-restricted affordable units.

The Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency has also acquired properties on Branch and Middle Streets to facilitate development of more affordable housing, facilitated brownfields cleanup funding on Pine and Branch Streets to support affordable housing development, used CDBG funds to help in tenant advocacy programs and homeownership classes, and revived the receivership program to redevelop vacant and abandoned housing units into safe housing, states the report.

The city is committed to acquiring an additional 400 units by 2032, a bold goal, states the report, but one that officials are confident they can achieve.

ARPA funds will be used to create a sustainable source of local funding for affordable housing, including an initial investment and then annual line item. A “housing navigator” position will be created as a single point of contact for all local, state and federal programs, helping residents in accessing information and resources.

The city will prioritize affordable housing when making decisions on the disposition of receivership properties, and will complete zoning ordinance amendments to support affordable housing development to allow for unified development review of affordable housing projects.

The General Assembly has the opportunity to make a historic investment in affordable housing by utilizing ARPA funds to address the decades-long acute shortage of housing, states the report, and the city needs the state to continue to allocate housing funds to small cities to help in preservation and development of affordable units. The state can also help by making the building of new affordable units more financially viable by exempting project materials and construction costs from the state sales tax, it states.

The report includes testimonials, including one from 30-year-old Annika Daluz, who lives at Branch Blackstone on Branch Street.

“The fact that it’s brand new and that I can afford to live here, it’s just incredible,” she says. “It’s wonderful.”

The report also details 100 residential units planned to serve veterans and seniors as part of a $70 million project at the former Memorial Hospital site.

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