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Duplication complicates affordable housing assessment


CHARLESTOWN — Rep. Donna Walsh, D-Charlestown, who heads a commission that is evaluating the effectiveness of the state’s affordable housing law, said she is running into a bureaucratic maze of other affordable housing and planning initiatives that might be duplicating the commission’s work.

One of those initiatives is RhodeMap RI, a state program launched in 2013. According to its written mandate, RhodeMap RI “seeks to strengthen our economy, meet current and future housing needs, and plan for future growth through the development of an integrated plan that will also include strategies for transportation, land use and environmental protection.”

Operating with a three-year, $1.9 million Sustainable Communities Regional Planning grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, Rhode Map RI is also developing a statewide housing plan.

Walsh, who heads the newly revived Housing Act Implementation Oversight Commission, said she wondered why a second group was producing a housing plan.

“What are they going to come up with?” she asked. “When I read this, I said, ‘They’re doing what we’re doing.’ I’m just getting very bogged down in a lot of this stuff. We’re doing a lot, but nobody’s communicating what we’re doing ... to the people who need to know.”

The oversight group is supposed to evaluate the state’s Low and Moderate Income Housing Act of 2004, which calls for a minimum amount of affordable housing in each community.

Further complicating matters is the state’s long-term conservation and development plan, “Land Use Guide 2025,” which lays out a vision for development in Rhode Island. Completed in 2006, the guide encourages the growth of commercial and residential centers while limiting sprawl.

But as the Land Use Guide program attempts to limit sprawl, another state initiative could encourage it. The Rhode Island Senate’s “Moving the Needle” program sought to improve Rhode Island’s economy by making it easier to invest and do business in the state.

Moving the Needle produced 25 bills aimed at streamlining regulations and encouraging economic growth. Two of those bills, both of which passed in 2013, limit the authority of towns to regulate development near wetlands and building on steep slopes. Officials in the state’s rural towns said they were particularly threatened by the legislation because it superseded their comprehensive plans. Those plans restrict development in environmentally sensitive areas.

Thomas Gentz, president of the Charlestown Town Council, sits on the oversight commission, which comprises legislators, affordable housing advocates, state agencies and one other municipality, Barrington.

Gentz said he was looking not only for clarity but consistency in the application of the low- and moderate-income housing act.

“Things ought to be linked up and there ought not to be ambiguity,” he said, noting the commission was still gathering information. So far, the 15 members have heard from state agencies and planners, and Gentz said it would be months before they begin issuing recommendations.

“We’ll start to put together our thoughts in terms of where the law needs to be modified. I’m not suggesting the law go away, I just think it needs to be modified,” he said.

cdrummond@thewesterlysun.com



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