By RUSS OLIVO
WOONSOCKET – Quick, what’s Woonsocket got more of than any other community in the state?
If your guess was affordable housing, well, you’re wrong.
Political leaders have long touted the factoid as proof of the city’s evolution into a sanctuary for the poor, but Woonsocket no longer has the highest concentration of affordable housing, a new study says.
HousingWorksRI’s 2012 survey of statewide housing costs says the distinction now belongs to Newport, a city that some, ironically, think of as a sanctuary for the wealthy.
The 2012 Housing Fact Book says that over 17 percent of all Newport’s housing stock was affordable, or at least it was in 2011, the year from which the data for the survey were culled. Woonsocket ranked second, with 15.79 percent of its housing stock deemed affordable.
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But many city officials believe the figure is still far too high.
One example of the growing resistance to affordable housing surfaced last year when the City Council recommended a Comprehensive Plan that called for a rollback in the concentration of affordable housing in the city. The Division of Statewide Planning eventually forced the city to swap the controversial language for something more neutral as a condition of approving the document, which can affect the city’s eligibility for grants.
Not long ago, Robert Kulik, the executive director of the Woonsocket Housing Authority, proposed retiring dozens of units of Section 8 housing in the Veterans Memorial Housing Development. The federal Bureau of Housing and Urban Development refused to go along with the program, however, saying there was no justification for the move.
Now some officials see an opportunity to get rid of even more housing by simply razing abandoned tenements that have fallen to foreclosure. Such a move would unclutter congested neighborhoods and eliminate a potential housing magnet for families with more children for the already overtaxed school system to educate, they argue.
Clearly, the friction over affordable housing has been exacerbated by the city’s financial woes, which some political leaders say is partly the result of a population with too few tax-paying private property owners to support the social welfare needs of the poor. Much of the fiscal stress shows up in the Woonsocket Education Department, which contends that the state has failed to acknowledge the costs associated with educating a large body of students who do not speak English as a primary language and who struggle with other challenges linked to poverty.
In the debate over housing, city officials argue that Woonsocket already has far more affordable units than the state requires, which is 10 percent, and they say it’s time for suburban neighbors to pick up the slack.
HousingWorksRI says there are actually only four other communities that meet the benchmark besides Woonsocket and Newport – Central Falls, East Providence, New Shoreham and Providence.
The latest example of official resistance to affordable housing erupted barely a week ago, when the City Council convened a special meeting with the Zoning Board of Review to discuss a new shelter for 10 homeless men on Burnside Avenue. Some members of the council complained that the project caught them by surprise and wonder how it possibly could have been approved without zoning approval.
It’s one of two new homeless shelters for single men that will open shortly in the city. A North Providence-based veterans group will soon open another 10-bed residence for homeless war veterans on South Main Street. Both represent the first homeless shelters exclusively for single men in at least a decade, a deficit illustrated by several makeshift tent villages that sprouted up on the banks of the Blackstone River this summer.
Nellie Gorbea, the executive director of HousingWorksRI, however, is surprised by the resistance to the homeless shelters in official circles in the city. As a policy, she says, opposing shelters for the homeless is both short-sighted and bad economics.
The latest research shows that building permanent supportive housing for the homeless is cheaper than allowing them to remain homeless, she says. Permanent supportive housing is a term advocates for the homeless use to describe the type of facility slated for Burnside Avenue – a shelter that provides not just a roof but an assortment of social supports for the people who live there, including mental health counseling, job training and substance abuse programs.
Recently, Gorbea said, the state tracked 48 homeless men to see how much it had been spending on them for overnights in hospitals, mental health facilities, substance abuse rehab centers, emergency room visits, incarceration and temporary shelters. The tab: $1.2 million.
In 2006 they entered a pilot program funded with a fraction of a $50 million affordable housing bond that was approved by voters that year. The bill for their social service needs shrank to about $380,000 for one year.
Gorbea, who is now promoting a $25 million follow-up to the 2006 affordable housing bond on the Nov. 6, statewide ballot, says city officials who oppose affordable housing should rethink their positions. They should be advocating for more affordable housing, not less, including programs for permanent supportive housing that have generated so much controversy.
“They really need to inform themselves on the data,” she says. “By providing affordable housing and then adding the wraparound services the cost to our communities is actually reduced overall. Woonsocket should be saying, ‘Can we have more of the housing bond money that’s coming up, not less.’”
Read more in our print edition.