Rhode Island Enforcing Housing Rules


A NEW state Housing Appeals Board is trying to assure that plans for publicly assisted housing developments in Rhode Island are treated fairly by local zoning authorities.

Loosely modeled after a similar board in Massachusetts, this one was created by the Rhode Island Legislature last year after years of lobbying by housing advocates. A 1988 law had already required communities to adopt land-use plans that would include a place for low-income housing. The board is intended to insure that communities carry out their own plans.

The Rhode Island law allows developers to appeal to the state board when their proposals to build such housing are denied by local authorities. Exempt from such appeals are communities in which the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has designated at least 10-percent of the total housing as affordable. Five Rhode Island communities - Woonsocket, Newport, Central Falls, Providence and East Providence - meet the 10 percent requirement and so cannot be forced by the state to accept additional low-income housing projects.

On the other end of the scale are towns like Richmond, where only four of the more than 1,800 houses and apartments are low- or moderate-income units, according to the Rhode Island Housing and Mortgage Finance Corporation.

The board helped open the way for construction of a $1.6 million duplex development for lower-income people in Richmond, a predominantly rural community with a population of 5,400. Construction of 20 co-op units in 10 buildings on Route 138, just west of the University of Rhode Island campus, is to begin later this fall.

An anti-poverty group, South County Community Action, requested a variance to build the development, called Richland Homelands, on about 21 acres of land zoned to accommodate 13 single-family units. It was denied by the town's zoning board in March. The board cited safety concerns because the single driveway to the homes intersected Route 138 on a curve.

In an appeal by the community action group, the appeals board ruled that it needed more information to decide the fate of the development, said John D. Glasheen, executive director of South County Community Action. The hearing led to the relocation of the driveway and then unanimous approval of the new plan by the zoning board in June.

"At the second hearings, there were only a handful of people, and the political storm had been done away with," Mr. Glasheen said.

The Richmond case is one of three appeals heard by the nine-member state board since it began operating in February. It is the only case that ended with the local board's reversing its original opinion.

"The intent is that there is a body in place to help promote a judicious review of affordable housing," said Patricia A. Kenyon, who works on the appeals board's staff.

Rhode Island Housing, an agency that offers low-interest mortgages and other programs aimed at providing housing to lower-income residents, is one of the groups that lobbied for the board's creation. Its executive director is now a nonvoting board member.

The appeals board chairman is State District Court Judge Stephen P. Erickson, a family court judge. He was appointed to the appeals board by the chief justice of the District Court.

Other board members represent interests ranging from local zoning and planning boards to developers of affordable housing and proponents of such projects.

The board's advocates say most of the initial opposition to the proposal for an appeals board came from legislators who believed the board would usurp local authority. But those fears have proved unfounded, proponents say.

Public Housing in New York Cited as Example For Ethnic Mix, Spread Thru City

In a side bar on the extensive problems, in Chicago's Cabrini Green public housing, the Chicago Tribune carried an article October 22, comparing Chicago with New York City. Reporter Kenneth R. Clark pointed to the ethnic mix and the location of housing throughout the city.

Mary Ann Rusk, executive director of the Washington based Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, called New York, "the showcase of the nation for large housing authorities."

Rusk attributed the New York success largely to the fact that a careful ethnic and economic mix is maintained and the developments are spread evenly throughout the city's five boroughs. Some of them are located in affluent neighborhoods. By contrast she said, Chicago's public housing is "an enormous concentration of units all in a big row, high rise after high rise marching down the highway."

In New York, public housing was regarded as a positive thing that should be spread around so that lots of people could benefit from it," Rusk said. "in Chicago it was perceived as being a divisive element from the start, and the notion was to contain poor and minority families in this ghetto."