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During a crisis, zoning laws are hindering construction of affordable housing units

“We’re a good actor in the neighborhood, and I just never envisioned this would be such an uphill battle,” said the executive director of Foster Forward, a nonprofit serving young people who have aged out of foster care

Lisa Guillette is the executive director of Foster Forward.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

PAWTUCKET, R.I. — This week, three young families finally moved into a renovated multi-family home trading years of housing insecurity for stability after aging out of the foster care system.

But every time Lisa Guillette walks into the building, just blocks away from the old McCoy stadium, she says she feels a little heartbroken over what could have been on the top floor.

Guillette, the executive director of Foster Forward, a nonprofit serving young people who have become too old for foster care, spearheaded the project. Using non-restrictive donor dollars, Foster Forward purchased the property in 2021 for $351,000, fully renovated three of the units to bring them to code, and then applied for a variance to make the fourth unit, a two-bedroom at the top of the house, legal.


Lisa Guillette, the executive director of Foster Forward, inside the fourth, illegal unit that must be left vacant.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

When they purchased the building, Guillette said, they knew a fourth unit had been illegally put in by a previous owner. It’s unclear when that unit was built, but the fading wallpaper and aging appliances looked as though it came from the 1970s. In 2018, the former owner applied for a dimensional variance. Despite the fact that his request would not change the exterior of the house, he was denied by the Pawtucket Planning Board due to the lack of additional parking spaces and several other issues related to zoning.

In a decision letter, which was obtained by the Globe, the City’s Comprehensive Plan’s Land Use and Housing chapters ordered that plans would need to protect the “existing residential neighborhoods from increasing housing densities that lead to overcrowding, shortage of available parking and traffic congestion,” to “protect the quality of life and character” of the neighborhood, and to reduce the number of illegal and substandard units. The zoning laws also required that there be parking for two cars per unit, even if fewer cars would be parked there, because on-street parking is not allowed in the area.


Guillette was hoping the city would grant her variance. The building would be managed by a nonprofit and it would provide a solution for families facing housing insecurity during what experts have called the largest housing crisis in Rhode Island’s history. The building has enough parking for six cars, and so far only one tenant would need to park there.

But her variance was denied. The city told her she would need a Class 1 Survey with an official parking plan showing for two spaces per unit. The cost: $5,000 to $10,000 to hire an attorney, plus more for an architect to design the plan. That’s all on top of the $250,000 they spent renovating the building and fixing a number of structural issues. And there was no guarantee they’d accept the plan and allow her to renovate that fourth unit.

“We’re a good actor in the neighborhood, and I just never envisioned this would be such an uphill battle,” said Guillette, who said she’s received support for the project from Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien’s office.

During a recent tour of the house, the downstairs smelled of fresh paint and sported modern appliances, shiny hardwood floors, and sunny rooms. The illegal upstairs unit, while unrenovated, was spacious enough for a young family, with a view of a school next door and a sprawling neighborhood.

“What’s completely ignored is the cost-benefit analysis of the lost housing unit to the general public,” said Dylan Conley, Foster Forward’s attorney. He’s also a member of the special legislative commission studying land use, preservation, development, housing, environment, and regulation that House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi formed. “It wouldn’t cost the public anything to allow Foster Forward to finish that unit.”


“Sometimes it feels like zoning laws care more about where Rhode Islanders are going to park their cars and not where they are going to live,” said Conley.

Housing advocates say antiquated zoning laws are preventing affordable units from being built.

Conley said another client of his recently purchased a six-unit apartment building. When he went before a zoning board to redevelop it, he was informed that the building was only zoned for three units, and that the previous owner had “illegally” split apartments in half. If he were to have six apartments instead of three, he could charge less in rent and provide housing for more people.

“In most of my client’s cases, they aren’t trying to be millionaires,” said Conley.

Cortney Nicolato, the CEO of United Way of Rhode Island and another member of the special legislative commission, said most of the state’s land use enabling legislation was written in 1991. Since then, there have been dozens of amendments.

“To me, when you have 100 amendments in a 30-year legislation, it’s clearly not working,” she said. “The housing crisis cannot be truly transformed until we tackle systemic barriers, like zoning laws and land use.”


Rhode Island has a 10 percent benchmark for each municipality’s housing stock to be reserved for long-term affordable units. But Nicolato said there’s currently no way to hold municipalities accountable— a change she is requesting at the commission. “There should be consequences for not meeting that 10 percent,” she said Wednesday.

Guillette walks through one of the first floor apartments that was refurbished. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Kristina Brown, a program officer for the United Way of Rhode Island, said getting rid of parking requirements “would be a huge step forward.”

“There’s a robust transit plan being put forth, and we are slowly moving in that direction, but building with it in mind would help us move forward on both the housing and transportation front,” she said. “And if you got rid of black top for parking, you could build more units.”

“At the end of the day, it’s better for the developer’s bottom line and better for our communities,” Brown added.

But, she said, many planning and zoning boards aren’t pushing back, but encouraging additional parking.

A rendering of a six-story building at 220 Blackstone Street in Providence, which will have 217 parking spaces for 178 apartment units. None of the units, which will include studios, one bedrooms, and two bedrooms, will be considered "affordable."Providence City Planning Commission

On Tuesday, the Providence City Plan Commission voted unanimously to approve a preliminary plan for a six-story apartment building with 178 units on Blackstone Street. The proposal, by Westerly, R.I.-based AR Building Company, includes 57 studio apartments, 67 one-bedrooms, and 54 two-bedrooms on a space that is currently vacant in Upper South Providence and close to several hospitals.

The plan also includes a massive parking lot with 217 spaces. Chairperson Christine West said the amount of parking seemed excessive and that the people who could afford these apartments might be walking to work at the hospitals.


“[They] might not need a car at all,” she quipped.

But the proposal was approved anyway.

“Yes, 178 units are a lot. I wish there were affordable units included, but I’m happy there’s construction,” said Brown. “But where was the pushback on the parking spaces? That’s more than one space per unit. While we’re in the middle of a housing crisis.”

Brown said a number of other zoning laws need to be updated, such as single-use zoning, which she said indicates where residential neighborhoods will be, where green space can be, and where commercial space should be. Some examples of this law play out on Route 2 or Post Road in Warwick where residential space, green space, and commercial use aren’t integrated. Now, many of those commercial spaces have empty storefronts.

Back in Pawtucket, Foster Forward is looking for a new multi-family to purchase. The organization is figuring out whether it’s worth it to continue to try to develop that illegal fourth unit and pay for a plan for additional parking, or put funds toward another project.

While standing with her arms crossed in the fourth apartment, Guilette said, “So this entire apartment is going to have to be closed off with the door locked. When really, it could help save a family from being homeless.”

Foster Forward's multifamily home in Pawtucket.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Alexa Gagosz can be reached at Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.