WOONSOCKET – A non-profit developer from Providence wants to build a 42-unit apartment complex for low-income senior citizens off Privilege Street.
Omni Privilege Limited Partnership's proposal for Waterview South Elderly Apartments would represent not just the biggest addition to the city's stock of affordable housing for the elderly in years, but the biggest housing development of any kind since well before the recession began in 2008.
Omni, a private, non-profit company that already owns the existing 100-unit Waterview Apartments overlooking Harris Pond, would build the sister facility on an abutting parcel of roughly three acres with similar views of the reservoir and its picturesque falls at the headwaters of the Peters River.
The project can't be built, however, unless the Zoning Board of Review grants the developer relief from certain dimensional restrictions in force in the area. Omni proposes a three-story building that's 45 feet high with a footprint of 150 feet by 128.6 feet, according to records on file at City Hall.
But if there's a sticky political wicket for the project to squeak through, it probably won't have anything to do with the size or the height of the building. The project would be rent-subsidized under the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 202 Program. That means only low-income individuals or couples over the age of 62 may live there.
Though the wrath its seldom directed toward seniors, subsidized housing has taken on the freight of a four-letter word in the city, where politicians have been railing against it as a drain on public resources and a drag on the economy for nearly a generation. The Woonsocket Housing Authority, with its massive stock of Section 8 housing, is pushing the federal government for permission to downsize, and the city has even proposed making a rollback in subsidized housing an economic development goal in its state-mandated Comprehensive Plan.
While Mayor Leo T. Fontaine still thinks the city has a surfeit of rent-subsidized apartments, he says he has no objections to the Waterview South proposal, however. The Section 202 program is substantially different than the more widespread Section 8 program, he says, and far less problematic.
Fontaine says the people who would reside in Waterview South wouldn't burden the city with additional education costs because they won't have children in the school system. The complex would also generate property taxes.
“It is subsidized, but it's for older individuals, meaning it will have no impact on our school system,” Fontaine said. “There will be tax revenue coming in from the property and, at this point, we have look at the positives of any type of development.”
Economic Development Director Matthew Wojcik said the project addresses a significant demand for housing among low-income seniors who do not want to be mixed in with younger, disabled people, as they are in the public high rises owned by the housing authority. There's a smorgasbord of qualified disabilities admitted in the same high-rise apartments that seniors live in, and the demographics don't always make for a happy mix, says Wojcik.
“You absolutely have to abide by the age requirement when you're a Section 202,” said Wojcik. “That's why there's such a long waiting list for apartments at Waterview.”
Lawyer Lloyd Gariepy, who is representing Omni before the Zoning Board, says Waterview has a backlog of about 75 applications for housing. The word-of-mouth about Waterview is so positive, he said, that many of those trying to get in are from out of town.
While the age requirement is ironclad, Section 202 places no prohibition on disabled residents – so long as they're also at least 62 years old. Given the infirmities of age and the financial struggles older people face in an economic climate often inhospitable to them, Gariepy says that providing decent, affordable housing opportunities for senior citizens is simply the right thing to do.
While some might disagree, Gariepy said, he doesn't consider the Section 202 program “a true subsidy.” He said tenants pay rent equivalent to 30 percent of their gross income. While the government picks up the balance of whatever it deems to be fair market rent for the region, tenants must pay something out of their pocket to live there.
Waterview Apartments was built in the 1970s but Omni was not the developer, Gariepy said. Records on the company's zoning application say Omni purchased the property in 1993. The president of the company is Joseph A. Caffey.
The only other Section 202 complexes in the city are the Sadwin Apartments, with 33 units at 183 Elm St., and the 12-unit Sutherland Apartments at 462 East School St., Omni points out in its zoning application.
“The granting of the requested variance in this case would be proper because it would further the development of housing opportunities for the fixed-income elderly population in a cluster development that would retain important topographical and environmental features of this site...adjacent to Harris Pond,” the application says.
The Zoning Board of Review is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the application Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in Harris Hall.