WARREN, R.I. — Weeks after the Warren Planning Board set strict conditions on a nonprofit developer’s proposed project that would have added 40 new affordable housing units, the town may have to backpedal due to new state laws that took effect this month.
The East Bay Community Development Corporation had proposed building the 40 units on a 4.5-acre parcel of land at 581 Child St. that is mostly undeveloped. The development, which the development corporation named “Penny Lane” for its former owner who occupied a single-family home, would have included 14 townhouses that would have been a mix of one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments.
During recent hours-long hearings over the project, some locals objected to the developer’s plans for reasons that included its size, arguments that the development would destroy wildlife habitat, and claims that the creation of affordable housing would open up the town to problems like crime.
On Jan. 3, after a more than two-hour discussion over the development, the Warren Planning Board voted 5-1 to require the firm to reduce the development to about 25 units. During the meeting, Warren planning board chairman Frederick D. Massie called the proposal “a winner,” but asked, “The question is, is this the right place for that level of density?”
The board’s decision was slammed on social media by housing advocates. “Meanwhile, Warren’s housing prices have increased by 15 percent since last year,” wrote Hayden Clarkin, a planning and transit expert originally from Rhode Island, on social media. “What an unserious state.”
Alex Pesta, the principal of City Architecture in the greater Cleveland area, wrote that citing density “is a lazy way to block a project.”
“Standard NIMBY practice,” wrote Pesta on social media, referencing “not-in-my-backyard” sentiments.
Attorneys for the developer also challenged the board’s conditions, and filed a legal petition. The attorneys wrote that reducing the project to 25 units would make it “infeasible” and “financially impossible.”
The proposed project’s total development costs are currently approximately $14.5 million, according to Francis Spinella, a consultant for the East Bay Community Development Corporation.
On Monday, the planning board agreed to reconsider their conditions during a special meeting on Feb. 12.
“The conditions we placed upon Penny Lane development — which was based on zoning acreage — is, in fact, not allowed,” said Massie. “As a consequence, we don’t have the power to... reduce the size of the number of units.”
Massie explained that if the board insisted on the developer decreasing the number of units in order to approve the project, it would likely be challenged in court.
“We would lose,” said Massie. “It would cost the town a significant amount of money, time, and effort. It would cost the developer a good deal of time and effort.”
The developer proposed the project under the state’s comprehensive permit process, which was one aspect of Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi’s housing legislative package in 2023 that assists developers to evade some zoning rules in municipalities where less than 10 percent of the total housing stock is deemed “affordable.” Despite a 30-year state law that requires each town to have at least 10 percent of its housing stock qualify as affordable for “low and moderate income” households, only five municipalities meet the requirements.
In Warren, only 3.85 percent of all year-round units are considered “affordable” as of 2022.
Upholding the board’s conditions and going to court could “also potentially result in an even larger development because the comprehensive permit, as written, allows for an even higher density than what the applicant was looking for,” said Massie.
Industry experts say Warren is in serious need of new housing construction.
Each unit in Penny Lane is expected to be listed at a price equal to 60 percent of the area median income, which means a one-person household earning no more than $43,200 annually could afford to live in the development. A family of four could earn a maximum of $61,440 annually in order to qualify to live in the units, according to income limits set for Warren by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Rents would range start at $638, and increase to $1,075 per month — depending on the size of the unit and number of bedrooms.