Jim Hummel, an independent journalist who lives in Barrington, took a very different tack than me on the issue of affordable housing in Rhode Island’s favorite suburban utopia.
Last fall, he reported Barrington actually has a lot of housing that meets the state’s definition of affordable housing, but that not much of it fits what he called the “intricate formula set by the state.”
Here’s how Gary Morse, the Barrington anti-affordable housing advocate that Hummel’s report relies upon, put it: “It has the illusion that everybody in Barrington is wealthy when, in fact, one third of the entire town could quality for affordable housing and one third of the houses in Barrington actually fall into the affordable guidelines.”
This isn’t true. The reality of the situation is there are many homes in Barrington that meet one criteria of the state’s definition of affordable housing: the median income component.
Affordable housing means housing which costs a third of a paycheck for folks who make about the median income, give or take 20 percent whether they rent or own. More precisely, it means this definition.
In Barrington, the median family income is $117,000 a year. Those who make 20 percent less than that are still making more than $93,000 a year, those who make 20 percent more are making $140,000 annually. You can find a pretty nice piece of real estate anywhere – even Barrington – on that budget! But don’t forget, it’s the median “area” income, not town, so the numbers aren’t quite so stark. According to Hummel, “For a family of four the “affordable house” price would be about $315,000 or under.” (note the scare quotes)
Of course, there are other components to what constitutes affordable housing, such as a 30 year deed restriction. This means, for practical purposes, that if you own real property that takes advantage of affordable housing laws that you are encumbered by them for three decades. If not for such deed restrictions, affordable housing would come to mean little more than zoning relief and a temporary tax shelter for developers.
For Morse, Hummel says “the issue is not wealthy people trying to keep others out – but equity for those who live in what could be considered affordable housing – but don’t get tax breaks and other benefits given to projects like these.”
Again, this isn’t true. There is no legal relief being offered to any affordable housing owner/developer that isn’t available to Morse or any of the people he says he represents. If they want to live with a 30 year deed restriction on their Barrington real estate, they can decrease the amount they pay in property taxes.
Here’s how Hummel put it: “So while a modest house like this one is paying nearly $4,000 a year in taxes and is subject to the town’s periodic revaluation, the house in this affordable housing development, as defined by the state, has assessments that are locked in for 30 years. The only increase comes as the tax rate increases, but the assessments don’t.”
What he leaves out is that they also retain the right to sell their real estate for whatever profit they can make off it. Historically, that’s been worth a more than a tax break in the town of Barrington.
So what is it Gary Morse is driving at?
Does he want to alert Barrington residents making between $90,000 and $140,000 a year that they, too, are eligible to get a tax break for helping their community reach its state-mandated allotment of affordable housing units? Maybe. Depending on what you think of the future trajectory of Barrington property taxes versus real estate value that might indeed be a wise financial strategy.
Does he want the affordable housing definition altered in a way that means if and when subsidized housing is built in Barrington that it will attract the truly destitute instead of upper middle class families? Maybe that too. As I specifically argue in this piece, this would make Barrington a lot nicer of a place to live.
This is what he says his issue is: “…now suddenly many of those residents who are not living in affordable housing, but living on the financial edge, they are going to be asked to support lifestyles and property taxes for those who have much more. This is what I really find to be a problem with how this is being implemented.”
On this point, I am in complete agreement with Gary Morse. But something tells me he isn’t lobbying his state legislators for tax equity. Hummel didn’t ask. He did, however, ask Town Council President June Speakman if she considered asking the state to help Barrington pay for its own affordable housing. Hummel’s a better reporter than me if he can pull this question off with a straight face. Or maybe it’s easy to become myopic when you don’t have any poor people living in your neighborhood.