Middletown looking to build 57 affordable housing units at the old Peckham and Oliphant schools

One of the biggest issues these days around Middletown is affordable housing.

For the first time in decades, the town itself is getting involved in the area, looking to bring close to 60 new units to the community at rates that most seniors, young families and working class people can afford.

Other than adding affordable housing to the community, what is the best thing about these two projects at the former Peckham school (next to the Middletown Senior Center) and the former Oliphant School Building on Oliphant Lane?

Town officials said they won’t cost Middletown property owners anything in local tax dollars.

That’s because the way the developments are planned, they’ll capitalize on state housing  money and other non tax sources to cover the costs.

“Literally, more than $20 million of new money will be injected into Middletown and not one cent of it will come from our local tax dollars,” Town Administrator Shawn J. Brown said. “Obviously, providing new places for people to live is priority No. 1 here, but the impact of that $20 million will have meaningful lasting implications for the town. The jobs it creates, the investment it spurs, the trickle down effect if you will. Those are the things that can get overlooked.”

“This isn’t going to cost the taxpayers of Middletown anything,” Town Council President Paul M. Rodrigues said. “I thought that was important for Shawn to highlight that this evening, especially in light of the fact the bond just passed.”

“We are going to build different levels of housing for young families,” Rodrigues added. “We couldn’t just go for seniors. We have to attack…it from different angles for different age groups. We’re an aging community, but our kids need to be able to stay here as well and workforce people need to be able to come to Middletown and live.” 

According to master plans for both projects recently approved by the Planning Board, a total of 57 units would be built on the two properties. The Green End Avenue project is aimed at seniors, while the Oliphant plan is geared to seniors and working families. 

During a recent briefing to the council, Brown said the master plan process through the Planning Board is more of a 1,000-foot view of the affordable housing project.

Brown said from here, it would be up to the town to dive more into the the nitty gritty details of the project and provide all the information required to the Planning Board, state and others who have oversight.

A timeline included in the lengthy list of master planning documents indicated the town was expecting to hear back on its funding requests in the late spring or early summer of 2024. 

Despite what some might think, Brown and Rodrigues said the affordability of Middletown is a very real issue.

Brown said recent statistics from Housing Works RI indicated there are 7,217 housing units in Middletown. Of those, 56 percent are owner occupied, with the remainder rented out.

Housing Works RI figures showed of those that owned, 33 percent are considered “burdened,” meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their gross pay towards housing. Of those who rent, Brown said Housing Works totals indicated 41 percent were “burdened.”

Aware of the problem, Brown and Rodrigues said the town was working hard to do its part to keep costs down today — and moving forward.

With that in mind, Brown and his team remain committed to lowering the overall cost of the new middle-high school narrowly okayed by voters at a Nov. 7 special election. Talk is already underway with local legislators to try to increase the amount of the project eligible for state reimbursements.

Brown has also told department heads to hold the line on requests for the proposed Fiscal 2025 budget and ask for no more than a 2 percent increase. Figures from town department heads to the finance office are due Friday, Dec. 15.

He and Rodrigues also noted there’s significant work in other areas towards creating more affordable and work force housing in Middletown. 

One place was another town project at 361-393 East Main Road, the 4.5-acre site across East Main Road from Town Hall purchased in April. The plan is to build up to 20 houses available for purchase there, with a deed restriction on the property guaranteeing the units remain open as workforce housing.

As an added benefit, Rodrigues said as envisioned, the East Main Road affordable housing units would remain taxable, meaning the town could generate new revenues from the development.

Because the Green End Avenue and Oliphant proposals were on the boards first, they’re further along in the planning, design and permitting process than the East Main Road project. 

Brown also noted the joint public-private partnership to redevelop 15 underused acres at 600-770 West Main Road includes significant workforce housing along with plans for a new hotel, library, mixed residential-commercial development and other amenities. 

He said the town continues to make forward progress on the “Middletown Center” project with representatives for a trio of local developers — Christopher Bicho, James Karam and Rocky Kempenaar.

As part of the ongoing affordable housing process, Brown said the town will re-form its Affordable Housing Committee. The group will include five residents as well as one liaison from the Town Council. 

Two vacancies are being advertised by the town to serve on the committee. Visit https://mdl.town/Volunteer to submit your name for consideration. The application deadline is Jan. 12.

Rodrigues will be the lone council liaison to that volunteer board from Councilor Dennis Turano, who has championed the affordable housing cause from the council dais for years. Applauding the town’s work in the area to date, Turano reminded everyone that nothing happens overnight.

“There’s really a lot of positive things happening in Middletown from an affordability standpoint,” Turano said. “I’d just like to remind people that it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”

Brown agreed, saying there was no doubt things were heading in the right direction —particularly with the planned outside investment in Middletown — but there was much work to do.

“What getting the number of units approved does for us is it gives us the ability to submit an application with RI Housing for housing tax credits…” Brown said. “By successfully completing the master planning process, we basically open up the way to get millions of dollars from the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program to fund the project.”