Seeking to build more “affordable housing,” state house politicians have proposed legislation which would allow apartments to be built in areas currently zoned only for single-family …
Seeking to build more “affordable housing,” state house politicians have proposed legislation which would allow apartments to be built in areas currently zoned only for single-family homes. In essence, the legislation would apply in any municipality with a population of greater than 20,000. As noted by various local officials, this legislation undermines local authority over zoning decisions. More importantly, it would likely undermine the property value of homes in which many Rhode Islanders have invested a large portion of their life savings. Also, instead of impeding housing construction, single-family zoning has played a role in encouraging home construction and home ownership. Rather than trying to ban single-family zoning, Rhode Island’s affordable housing law, which requires a certain percentage of “affordable housing” be available in each municipality, should be overhauled.
From its inception, the primary goal of zoning has been to protect property values, in particular that of residential homes. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, a transportation transformation, in the form of trolleys and then automobiles, freed people from the need to live within walking distance of their workplaces. Exclusively residential neighborhoods emerged. Zoning plans, which divided land into different sections based on use, were conceived to protect these residential neighborhoods.
For Rhode Island, the movement towards zoning began around 1920 when the Providence City Planning Commission published a report, which stated that “a zoning plan will stabilize and protect property values and investments.” Meanwhile, in various editorials, the Providence Journal championed zoning by explaining how the “protection of real estate values” was “the essential feature of the zoning system,” and that zoning “gives the owner of a home a guarantee of security.” In 1921, the General Assembly passed legislation authorizing municipalities to adopt zoning plans.
Soon thereafter, municipalities began to adopt zoning plans. In 1923, Providence adopted a zoning plan with Providence’s city planning engineer justifying its need by noting that “instability of residence districts makes an investment in a home a hazardous venture” and the lack of a zoning plan was “a real handicap to homebuilding and home ownership.” A few months later, in 1924, Cranston adopted its zoning plan with its expert explaining that because Cranston was “primarily a residential suburb,” zoning was needed to ensure that “home neighborhoods are protected and investments in homes safeguarded.” Specifically, “all residence districts” had to be secured “from the intrusion of stores, small shops, industrial plants” while “dwelling house districts” needed to be “protected from the encroachment of three-deckers and larger tenements.” After a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1926 ruled that single-family zoning was constitutional, zoning plans, which included single family zoning, were adopted throughout Rhode Island over the years.
With the protection of zoning, a tremendous increase in home building, and home ownership occurred in Rhode Island over the next century. According to the U.S. Census, in 1920, there were 137,160 housing units in Rhode Island and home ownership was about 31 percent. By 2020, there were 483,474 housing units in Rhode Island and homeownership was about 64 percent.
Relying upon zoning, Rhode Islanders have invested a large amount of their life savings in their homes. Undoubtedly, like the typical American, the average Rhode Islander has invested about two-thirds of his or her net worth in their home. This is to some extent this is reflected in the significant value of single-family homes in Rhode Island. According to documentation from the R.I. Department of Revenue, in 2020, the total assessed value of Rhode Island single-family homes was $85.3 billion (In our largest suburban cities, Cranston and Warwick, the amounts were $5.8 billion and $6.5 billion, respectively).
Some housing advocates assert that single-family zoning has led to a lack of “affordable housing” in Rhode Island. However, the prevalence of single-family zoning in a community has not prevented the construction of low or moderate-income housing. For example, in Cranston, there are 604 public housing units. Also, over a third of Cranston’s housing is apartments, and of these apartments, 15 percent are deemed “affordable” under Rhode Island law.
The lack of “affordable housing” is, in part, due to the unnecessarily restrictive definition of “affordable housing” under state law. Karen Scott, Glocester Town Planner and member of the House Study Commission on Low-and-Moderate Income Housing, has explained that Rhode Island’s definition of affordable housing “drastically undercounts the affordable units that actually exist” because it only counts housing units as affordable if the unit is subsidized and deed restricted for at least 30 years. As a result, housing units that are not considered affordable under state law include: (1) housing for tenants with Section 8 vouchers if the property is not deed restricted; (2) in-law apartments for elderly family members; or (3) the homes of low-income seniors who receive a property tax credit or have their property taxes frozen.
In fact, Rhode Island’s affordable housing law creates a fiscal disincentive for municipalities to accept affordable housing. Under state law, affordable housing rental units are not taxed at their full property value. Instead, they only pay a tax equal to 8 percent of their rental income. Glocester Town Planner Scott noted that this can “create a large financial burden on municipal budgets” and “acts as a disincentive for density as municipalities must provide the same services with significantly lower funds.”
Lastly, the overall goal in Rhode Island’s affordable housing law of having 10 percent of housing in each municipality be “affordable” is simply not feasible. It is a one size fits all approach, but many municipalities have limited public water service, sewer service or access to public transportation. Even in a community like Cranston, the goal of 10 percent is not realistic. To reach this goal, Cranston would need to construct about 1,489 new affordable housing units, when it only issued about 60 new residential housing building permits in 2020.
Some may claim that single-family zoning is unfair, but in fact, what would be unfair is to eliminate single-family zoning and reduce the value of an asset that people have invested a huge portion of their life savings, and their dreams. Rather than meddling with single-family zoning, which has actually succeeded in encouraging housing construction and home ownership over the past century, politicians should focus on revamping the state’s faulty affordable housing law.
Steven Frias is Rhode Island’s Republican National Committeeman, a historian, recipient of The Coolidge Prize for Journalism and a member of the Cranston City Plan Commission.
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