Monday, November 9, 2009

A good fit, better life

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BARRINGTON — Aenoy Nirandone and her family fled Laos more than 25 years ago. Her early childhood was spent in a refugee camp in Thailand. When she stepped off the plane at T.F. Green Airport, the six-year-old had never seen snow.

Today, Nirandone has an 11-year-old daughter, works at a local hospital and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in nursing. The mother and daughter are typical of the kinds of families moving into Sweetbriar, Barrington’s first affordable housing development, located on Washington Road in West Barrington.

“It reminds me of ‘Pleasantville’,” Nirandone says, referring to a movie in which two teenagers are dropped into a Donna Reed-like suburban fantasy. “At night, all you hear is the wind and the crickets.”

With its front porches and gabled roofs, Sweetbriar is a far cry from Nirandone’s apartment on Manton Avenue in Providence, where the thump-thump of car radios often disturbed her sleep.

As she gave a visitor a tour of her two-story apartment, which rents for $830 a month, well below market rates for a three-bedroom in Barrington, Nirandone pointed out the ample closet space, the burnished nickel fixtures and the dishwasher in the kitchen. Standing on her front porch, she motioned to a strip of muddy earth that will soon become “the commons,” a park where families can congregate.

“It’s a great place for kids,” Nirandone said. “I don’t have to worry about my daughter anymore.”

The first 14 families moved into Sweetbriar last month, closing the book on a six-year saga that culminated in a state Supreme Court decision ordering the town to move forward with the $13-million project.

In 2003, the original plan stirred up a ruckus, with opponents arguing that the development would increase traffic, raise taxes, hurt property values and burden the school system. But those fears have since evaporated, especially because the new design borrows architectural elements from the surrounding neighborhood, a mix of modest cottages and grander Greek Revivals and Queen Annes.

“We are all afraid of the unknown,” said Town Manager Peter DeAngelis. “Most people that I talk to like the way it turned out.”

No one fought harder to make Sweetbriar become a reality than Kathleen Bazinet, executive director of the East Bay Community Development Corporation, the project’s nonprofit developer.

“People have come to understand that we have developed a neighborhood here,” she said. “We have as much at stake as the neighbors. Our families need to be part of the tapestry of this town.”

Sweetbriar, she said, is not low-income housing. To qualify, a family of four can earn no more than $43,920. Rents range from $578 for a two-bedroom to $833 for a three-bedroom.

According to the 2000 Census, the median household income in Barrington was $74,591.

Housing is considered affordable when no more than 30 percent of a household’s income is spent on rent or on a mortgage, taxes and insurance. Last year, HousingWorks RI reported that only 96 of the town’s more than 6,000 housing units were affordable — between 1 and 2 percent. State law requires that cities and towns have 10 percent of their housing qualify as affordable.

Bazinet said the Sweetbriar families are typically working in entry-level positions in banks and hospitals, office buildings and schools.

“We live in a state with 78,000 people who are unemployed,” she said. “We need to live in the real world. This is a development for people who work in Rhode Island, a state that historically has never produced high-paying wages. If you are making $50,000 and spending $1,200 a month on rent, you are living the rest of your life on a very small margin.”

One of the biggest fears — that Sweetbriar would usher in a wave of low-income families from the cities — has not materialized. So far, three families are from Barrington, four are from East Providence, one family is from Bristol. The remaining families are from Providence, Pawtucket and Cranston. When the project is finished this spring, there will be 47 rental units and 3 single-family homes on the site of the former West Barrington Elementary School.

Aware of these fears, Tara Dodson, 29, another new resident, says, “You can’t judge people on how much money they make. Everybody deserves the same opportunities.”

She and her 10-year-old daughter, Avery, left a small apartment in Bristol to be closer to Tara’s mother, to take advantage of Barrington’s schools and to enjoy the larger living space. Dodson is enrolled in a dental hygienist program at Bristol Community College and is continuing to work part-time. “This is going to help me better myself in more ways then one,” says Dodson.

Some residents also worried that the Sweetbriar families would overwhelm the school system, considered the best in Rhode Island. But only 13 additional children have enrolled since Sweetbriar opened and they have been spread evenly among the town’s schools and grade levels.

One of the reasons why Sweetbriar is getting positive reviews is its design. Imagine a traditional New England commons, with houses facing a central green. Add front porches and rooflines with gables and peaks and colors that range from harvest gold to forest green. In the spirit of New Urbanism, the private homes are grouped to create a public space.

“The physical layout is meant to express the idea of community by the way the houses line up and enclose a common green,” said Donald Powers, who designed the project and grew up in Barrington. “The town green holds everyone together.”

Nirandone, meanwhile, sees this as a chance to start over. Pregnant at 18, the young woman had to face her family’s disappointment and her own dashed dreams. But she rebounded, earning a degree in human development from the University of Rhode Island last year while raising a child.

“I’m living my life in reverse,” she said, looking at the unpacked boxes in her new apartment. “I graduated from college at 28 and I’m working on a second degree at the Community College of Rhode Island.”

Nirandone has noticed a subtle change in her daughter, Aria, since she began school here this fall. She seems less rebellious, less of a smart aleck. Aria is, after all, the reason why Nirandone threw her hat in the ring for Sweetbriar.

“Aria is my teacher,” Nirandone said. “She forced me to grow up.”

Shortly after Nirandone moved in, a man on a bicycle stopped to admire the new complex. He was so enthusiastic about the new development, Nirandone said, she decided to give him a tour of her apartment.

This is just the kind of neighborly encounter that Kathy Bazinet hopes will close the gap between Sweetbriar and the surrounding neighborhood.

From the start, Bazinet said: I want a neighborhood not a public housing project.

“My big hope,” Powers said, “is that this is nothing remarkable at all. I don’t want it to be a model for affordable housing. I want it to be recognized as a nice neighborhood to live in.”