New committee will look at need for senior housing in Burrillville

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BURRILLVILLE – Members of the Town Council voted unanimously last week to form a new advisory committee to look at the possible need for establishing more senior and handicap housing in Burrillville.

The effort was put forward by Council Vice President Stephen Rawson, who pointed to long waiting lists and the possible need to upgrade current units.

“I hear stories of people waiting well over a year to get a nod to go into these facilities,” said Rawson. “I think we have to look to see if there is a need.”

The Burrillville Housing Authority operates one federally-funded facility offering housing to seniors; the 76-unit Ashton Court. The operating budget for the property, built in the 1950s, is fully covered by the federal government.

In discussion on the issue, Rawson pointed to the need for possible upgrades and rehabilitation at Ashton, pointing to the lack of elevators and small size of some units.

“It’s a very dated place. It’s been there quite awhile,” Rawson said.

But resident Peggy Dudley took issue with the criticism, and with the notion that the complicated issue of affordable housing could be, “fixed,” with a town committee.

“Housing is a problem all across the United States, it is not unique to Burrillville,” Dudley noted in an email to councilors. Dudley, who used to serve on the Board of Commissioners for BHA, noted that the federal government won’t finance things such as new buildings or an elevator, and that senior housing is a complex issue. “It will not be solved by being critical of Ashton Court which might be old, but it’s one of the best run Housing Authorities in the state.” 

Privately-run facilities, such as Bradford Court and Stillwater Heights, provide additional affordable units for Burrillville seniors, subsidized through tax credits. The Burrillville Housing Authority also issues vouchers that subsidize rents for those in need.

But many say it’s not enough, and that limits on affordable units leave many seniors cost burdened.

A publication by Housing Works RI at Roger Williams University that looked at the senior housing shortage in Rhode Island in 2017 noted that roughly 90 percent of seniors throughout the country prefer to age in place, remaining in their communities as long as possible.

“Housing affordability and accessibility can pose substantial barriers to aging in community,” it noted.

The study also noted that 74 percent if the state’s housing stock was built before 1979, which means the majority is not ADA accessible and expensive to maintain, modify or renovate.

Under the regulations of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, residents are eligible for senior subsidized housing at the age of 62, however, “3,496 existing elderly units are in need of preservation and without adequate funding these units could be lost,” according to Housing Works RI.

State law, meanwhile, requires that every community dedicate at least 10 percent of housing stock to affordable units.

Rawson said the Burrillville group’s first task will be to look at the latest census data to determine if there is, indeed, a town shortage. 

Town Manager Michael Wood pointed out that options to address the issue are not limited those that are operated through the government.

“We can craft a program where we can bring in non-profit developers… make land available and coordinate a project outside of the government-regulated stuff,” Wood said.

Dudley expressed hopes for similar solutions.

“I suspect it will only be solved by numerous changes to the housing regulations or by a great many private public partnerships,” she said of the senior housing shortage. 

Councilors voted to form the Senior Housing Exploratory Committee to examine the problem, with makeup to include representatives from BHA, as well as planning and the public.

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