Harold Schofield, a Narragansett resident, is a retired engineer, business owner and entrepreneur.
On Dec. 7, Journal reporter Wheeler Cowperthwaite reported on the Narragansett Town Council holding its first meeting on proposed changes to the town’s zoning rules in response to housing legislation passed during the last General Assembly session. Mr. Cowperthwaite reported that House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi was irked by Narragansett’s decision to roll back its zoning setbacks 15% to offset a new state mandate that provides a 15% override for developers.
Speaker Shekarchi characterized Narragansett’s “direct contravention” as a “lack of good faith.” To the contrary, Narragansett’s Town Council acted to protect the integrity of zoning on behalf of its residents. Inclusionary zoning, which allows developers to build denser developments than local zoning rules allow, typically turn out to be giveaways to developers. And many of these projects have sunset provisions, absent prolonged low-income housing tax credits or gobs of federal money.
While zoning easements may work in some places, Narragansett is already 90% built out, and suffers more than any other Rhode Island town from the combined impact of student and summer rentals, now further compounded by the rapid emergence of short-term rentals. At 976, Narragansett now accounts for 21% of all short-term rentals in the state.
Town Council President Ewa Dzwierzynski testified on Dec. 6 to the state legislative panel studying the economic and social effects of short-term rentals, noting that home prices in Narragansett have been driven up more steeply due to valuations based on their earning ability as investment properties, rather than comparable neighborhood sales. Officials from Jamestown and Tiverton cited similar trends.
Despite pushback from a committee that, beyond state representatives, is stacked with real estate and landlord interests, it is undeniable that investors who turn residential properties into businesses are pushing families out of local markets, further exacerbating school population declines and detracting from the basic definition of neighborhoods; namely that residents have families next door and not mini hotels and dormitories.
Presuming Speaker Shekarchi is serious about his affordable-housing initiative, why not start with programs aimed at revitalization of urban neighborhoods surrounding and including Providence that need help. And rather than beat up Narragansett over zoning, why not work with the University of Rhode Island to parse some of its undeveloped land out to private developers like many other colleges and universities have done, and let them build student residences. This will make URI a more lived-on campus and drain Narragansett of most of the more than 6,000 students who now live there — more than half the undergraduate population.
This would open up more real estate for families than a 15% zoning easement, and slow down the price escalation. Even though enforcement has not started yet, Narragansett’s new, no-more-than-three-students per house ordinance, has already thwarted some real estate sales away from investors.
For the record, the housing crisis is real and cries out for innovative solutions. But solutions at odds with market forces never work. And given the desirability and buildouts of our coastal towns, opportunities to make a significant dent in accommodating lower-income families are slim at best.
Conversion of underutilized industrial land and urban renewal projects have a lot more upside. This is the lower hanging fruit Speaker Shekarchi should focus on.