When it comes to community, Barrington is by many measures Rhode Island’s standard for success. It boasts the best schools and the highest household median income. Crime is low, taxes are reasonable, real estate is valuable and amenities abound. Then how is it that this upper middle class suburban utopia epitomizes the state’s biggest economic issue and political problem?
Because Rhode Island’s most vexing social issue is that there are actually two extremely different worlds mashed into the relatively cozy cluster of towns in between Westerly and Woonsocket. There are the suburban enclaves, where life is pretty much like I just described Barrington. And then there are the urban areas, where life is pretty much the polar opposite of life in Barrington.
And here in the Ocean State, the haves seem to want little to do with the have-not neighbors. Classism can be easy to ignore, but we see it playing out prtty clearly as a group of Barrington residents are vociferously opposing an affordable housing project.
The group calls itself “Community Opposed to Detrimental Development and for Environmental Responsibility 02806” and claims its concerns are related to traffic congestion and the integrity of the town’s zoning rules. But this group’s name and many of their stated objections serve only to disguise what is really occurring in Rhode Island’s suburban standard bearer.
Similarly, I would submit that this is front page news today not because Barrington is woefully short of the state-mandated amount of affordable housing (which it is, by the way) or because some residents might need a sidewalk someday sooner rather than later. It’s news because it shows how rich people don’t want to share what they’ve got with poor people – and how they come up with fancy names and fake arguments to game the system so that they won’t have to.
Some 60 people showed up to a zoning board meeting last night to and more than 500 signed a petition opposing the project. I’ll bet the last time a public policy issue generated so much community involvement it involved the death of a teenager. Reporter Christine Dunn notes the group handed out literature at the meeting raising several objections including, she highlighted, “compatibility with the surrounding community.”
That’s the real story here.
All of those superlatives that I listed at the beginning of this post, all of the attributes that make people think Barrington must be the best place to own a home, would be diminished if more poor people lived there. NECAP scores and median income levels would decrease just as surely as crime and taxes would increase. So, who can blame Barrington for not wanting to let in any more of the poor?
The rest of the state, that’s who. While mixed income development might not be in the immediate self-interest of the suburbs (though I argue in this post that it is), it is far and away the better row to hoe for the state as a whole.
That’s why Rhode Island is lucky that in this particular instance state affordable housing mandates trump Barrington’s two unit-per-acre zoning rule. But there is still a path to victory for the opposition: they could appeal enough decisions to exhaust the resources of the applicant – it’s not at all unlikely that a citizens group from Barrington will be able to outspend a community housing agency. Even if and when the East Bay Community Development Corporation wins the right to build low income housing in Barrington, it knows for next time that it is much more expensive to do so here. The only other affordable housing project in Barrington went all the way to the state Supreme Court.
The best thing anyone can do for Rhode Island is to get the people in the cities and the people in the suburbs to understand that our destinies are inextricably connected, even if our lives aren’t on a daily basis. We all end up living with one another in the long run – whether we’re neighbors or not.