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Let’s put a halt to torture in Charlestown

Statistics have suffered enough

By Will Collette

Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA Party) founder and de facto leader Ruth Platner has issued another in her long series of attacks on affordable housing. This time, she’s gone to one of her favorite tactics: the torture of data to make her point.

This time, Platner claims that the state’s initiative to provide more desperately needed affordable housing is an attempt to compel Charlestown to grow faster. This is unfair, she says, because Charlestown has grown 11 times faster than the state.”

She cites US Census data that shows Charlestown’s population in 1970 was 2,863 but grew to 7,997 in 2020 while the state’s population wobbled around the 1 million mark for that same period.

So there, says Ruthie. We’re all good.

There’s a saying, attributed to many, that “Statistics are like a captured spy – torture them enough and they’ll tell you anything.” Ruth’s census data interpretation is a case in point.

While Ruth correctly cites the 1970 and 2020 census numbers for Charlestown, it’s cheating not to look at the years in between. Those numbers give you a very different story than the one Ruth is selling. In fact, it’s a different story than the one Ruth herself told in Charlestown’s Comprehensive Plan.

As the table shows, Charlestown experienced a period of rapid growth that was reflected in the 1970 Census, as well as the next two census reports. The growth started in the 1960s, when Charlestown’s 1960 population was only 1,966 and continued into the 1990s when it grew to 7,859 in 2000.

Then around 2000, Charlestown's growth came to a dead halt and has stayed that way for the past 24 years. 

In that growth period between 1960 and 2000, new families moved into Charlestown to live in developments whose names are now those of well-established and desirable neighborhoods. Cathy and I came in on the backend of the wave, buying our house and land in 2000 for $395,000.

Compounding Platner’s dishonesty is her own writing in Charlestown’s Comprehensive Plan where she admits they knew about the 1960-1999 surge and the 2000-present stagnation:

"The Town of Charlestown experienced rapid population growth in the last decade of the 20th century, moving from 6,478 residents in 1990 to 7,859 in 2000, a change of 1,381 residents or 21.3%. Since 2000, however, population growth has declined or been flat, as is shown in the above table (See Plan, page 10-2, Table HC-1) showing an estimated town population of 7,772 in 2015 (a decline of 87 residents or 1.1%). Population projections provided by the RI Office of Statewide Planning show a return to a growth trend, with a population of 9,329 by 2040. This represents a 20% increase between 2015 and 2040. However, this level of growth is not likely to be realized given recent trends, the ageing of the local populace and expected modest declines in average household size. While the actual numbers are likely to be considerably less, these projections will be utilized in this chapter for estimating housing growth, and the need for low and moderate-income units relating to the state’s 10% threshold…”. 

Rather than responding to “the need for low and moderate-income units,” Platner as head of the Planning Commission and the Charlestown Citizens Alliance and its precursors clamped down on housing in general but especially new affordable housing. 

This led to this situation described by Ruthie herself in her article:

“From 2010 to 2023, 357 new homes were built in Charlestown. However, those 357 new dwellings barely register in the census data as many are consumed for non-resident use. An additional 54 new house lots were approved in 2023 and have not been built yet; the majority are likely to be second homes."

That actually worked fine for the CCA because it counts on these non-residents to donate most of its campaign cash. These absentee owners may only “barely register in the census data" but, as the CCA’s campaign finance reports show, they do add lots of cash to the CCA’s cash register.

That has not been good for Charlestown.

As Ruth herself admits, Charlestown’s actual summertime population is a lot higher. We go from just under 8,000 people to almost 30,000. That’s because Charlestown’s policies, conceived and administered by Ruth and the CCA, feed absentee ownership and beach rentals, not housing for residents. The only “industry” that Platner favors is tourism.

Charlestown has had to create – and pay for – the infrastructure to support that bloated mass of summer people. We also must listen to summer people complain about having to support the Chariho School District, while also demanding the town repave their roads and rebuild their beachfronts. Under the CCA, town volunteers even picked up trash around their properties.

I’ve argued the financial burden of providing infrastructure to summer people is why Charlestown should follow the lead of other coastal Rhode Island towns and offer permanent residents a Homestead Tax Credit. But no, says the CCA, that would be unfair to those absentee landowners.

Platner also knows how Charlestown’s housing needs will evolve, based on her narrative in the Comprehensive Plan, but has refused to allow any action to address those needs. Here’s what she wrote in the Plan:

“For the timeframe of this plan it is expected that the overall profile of the Charlestown population will not undergo significant change or modification. While median age will trend upward and the segment of the population over age 60 will continue to grow, other general population characteristics should remain steady or change in modest form. “This trend may suggest a greater need for housing designed for and more suited to elderly occupancy and needs, including elderly rental, single-story accessible designs, smaller unit footprints and limits on bedrooms. Location wise [SIC] such housing should consider issues of service availability, ease of access and walkability. Entry level family housing, both homeownership and rental, will remain a need over the timeframe of this plan."

So, according to Ruth’s Comprehensive Plan, we need more “entry-level family housing” as well as various forms of elderly housing. But we’re not going to get it, because according to Ruth’s article, the situation can’t be fixed:

“The supply of affluent people willing to pay high prices for homes and short or long-term rentals will consume any increase in housing production.”

Granted that if we build more McMansions along the all-ready jammed packed and climate-vulnerable coast, all we’ll get are more Mercedes with Connecticut plates.

However, this is a classic Ruth Platner red herring. The state is pushing for more family housing and small accessory dwelling units (ADUs) while nobody wants more beach housing either for wealthy out-of-staters or summer rental.

This is not the first or only time Ruth and the CCA have used dishonest research, faulty data and bizarre reasoning to attack affordable housing despite her own admission that we sorely need it.

Former Town Boss Tom Gentz used to go up to the State House every year to argue that Charlestown should be exempt from the state’s affordable housing mandate. 

Gentz argued that Charlestown should be exempt because we're not like the rest of Rhode Island, except that, for purposes of her argument, Platner directly compares Charlestown and the state as a whole.

During the Great Recession, the CCA argued that homes where the owners were underwater should be counted as affordable housing.

Platner argued that family housing was a plague because it brought new children into the Chariho School District. This raises taxes and apparently hurts the CCA’s donor base among absentee property owners. 

She even created her own “formula” so you can see for yourself how much these child lampreys raise taxes. That’s why she blocks that “entry-level family housing” she admits we need.

As for much needed elderly housing, ex-Town Council member and CCA leading expert on everything George Tremblay attacked affordable housing for the elderly based on an untrue story that a New York City condo developer was getting tax breaks to build luxury apartments for seniors under a program unique to the city.

Tremblay also claimed, without evidence, that building affordable housing for seniors in Charlestown would attract elderly speculators who would simply buy units up and then flip them for a profit. 

Does anyone have an example of elderly speculators exploiting Churchwoods, Charlestown’s only senior citizens affordable housing development since it opened in 2017?

Platner added her own theory that affordable housing for the elderly would be bad for Charlestown because a lot of elderly people own cats. Those cats might get loose and eat birds, presumably before they (the cats) get eaten by coyotes. 

No evidence was offered to support this purported menace. Again, any examples from Churchwoods?

So as you can see, Platner’s latest attempt to befuddle voters is part of a long tradition of the CCA’s Trumpish relationship with the truth. You should ask her how she can claim one thing in the Comprehensive Plan while espousing the direct opposite both in practice and in CCA campaign propaganda.

This is an election year, and we are also getting close to hurricane season. That means that Charlestown voters need to batten down for a Category 5 CCA Bullshit Storm that will surely disturb our rural tranquility.

This article was first published on the Progressive Charlestown website and republished with permission.

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