Gary Morse: Affordable Housing on Steroids?

At the request of Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, the planned Rhode Island Statewide Planning vote on the adoption of RhodeMap RI has been postponed until December 11, at 9:00 a.m. You would be excused if you have no idea what RhodeMap RI is about. Statewide Planning did a great job hiding the real truth behind talk of “economic development.”

Last week, the RI Public Expenditure Council withdrew its support for RhodeMap RI, stating it had changed from the original intent as an economic development plan into primarily a social-equity plan.

RhodeMap RI is affordable housing as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, not the State of Rhode Island. In spite of the hype about economic development, the real intent is to deconstruct RI’s suburbs. RhodeMap RI is simply implementing what HUD wants.

Once RhodeMap RI is fully adopted, communities will cede the limited state affordable housing “goals,” replaced by more-comprehensive federal social-equity mandates. These federal mandates include a requirement that implementation of low-income housing, particularly low-income rental housing, must begin in those neighborhoods showing the greatest lack of such housing.

Under RhodeMap RI, HUD will rely on new powers granted to a Social Equity Advisory Committee to implement the federal mandates. For example, if a developer wants to put high-density low-income housing on an estate in a predominantly upscale neighborhood and was turned down by the local Planning Board, the developer would simply turn to the Social Equity Advisory Committee to take action.

There would be little help from a local Planning Board, or State Housing Appeals Board, or even the RI courts. Matters under the Social Equity Advisory Committee would be at the federal level and resolved in the federal courts, under federal law.

This is what the residents of Westchester County, NY, discovered in 2006 when they were sued over their own affordable housing implementation. The argument in the Westchester lawsuit was not whether there was enough low-income housing in the county, but whether low-income housing was being left out of upscale Westchester neighborhoods.

HUD has little interest in mitigating the impact to established property values, or the ensuing problem that property taxes must rise for everyone to cover the impact to the overall municipal property tax base. HUD’s opinion in the Westchester case was that upscale neighborhoods were out of reach of low-income populations, and thus, the forced social-equity policy changes were required.

Is there any protection against this federal takeover of our property rights? There might be if only local officials would raise the question of the constitutionality of this takeover. The Rhode Island Constitution, under Article XIII, Home Rule for Cities and Towns, states: “It is the intention of this article to grant and confirm to the people of every city and town in this state the right of self government in all local matters.”

Is the takeover of local zoning decisions by federal bureaucrats an unconstitutional takeover? We won’t know until the RI courts declare it is unconstitutional. To date, the courts haven’t been asked this question. Maybe they should be asked, and soon.

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