Affordable housing in a wealthy redoubt

At Home
By RICHARD ASINOF  |  October 21, 2009

Barrington, not exactly known for its welcome mat to working poor families, now has its first affordable housing project in living memory.

The East Bay Community Development Corporation celebrated the opening of 14 new rental homes for working families who earn under $42,000 a year -- the first phase of a 47-rental-unit effort known as Sweetbriar -- with a ribbon cutting and luncheon at its Washington Road site on October 13.

New tenant Emily Santos, who recently moved there from Providence, was all smiles. She was a bit nervous, she said, because her two sons, 11 and 14, were attending their first day at Barrington High School. They play cello and viola, she said, and Santos hoped they would be able to continue their musical education. A new neighbor gave her the names of the music teachers at the high school. Santos, like so many other residents who move to Barrington, was thrilled by the opportunity for her boys to attend a top-flight school system.

It had taken six years to complete the first phase of the project, which had been bitterly fought by some Barrington residents and officials, who openly voiced fears that by creating affordable housing in this tony suburban town, it would somehow open the floodgates to the "riff-raff." The history of Barrington as a factory town, with lace works and a brick-making plant, celebrated in black and white photographs at the town hall, had been conveniently forgotten.

No one told the ugly part of the story -- town officials took their fight against the project all the way to the Rhode Island Supreme Court -- at the celebration. But it clearly made the opening event that much sweeter for Kathy Bazinet, the executive director of the development corporation, which built the $13 million development. In between smiles, laughter, and thank yous, Bazinet paused, her voice often choked with emotion. "We are standing tall -- we did it," she said.

There were many local community heroes who helped make Sweetbriar a success story: Barbara Fields of Rhode Island Local Initiatives Support Corporation, David Hammarstrom from MetLife Foundation, and Richard Godfrey of Rhode Island Housing, who first told Bazinet about the potential site back in 2002. But one who stood out from the rest was Albert P. Valliere, Jr., the head of Nation Wide Construction Corporation in Woonsocket, who was the contractor building the new homes. His dad had started the business in the 1940s, and Valliere and his crew were very much like proud parents, beaming at the spiffy details of the homes, which, according to Marc P. Pincince of Nation Wide, reflect the influences of Greek Revival, Colonial, Queen Anne, Victorian Cottage and New England farmhouse design.

The new homes easily blended in with the surrounding neighborhood, according to one local observer, former Providence Journal political columnist M. Charles Bakst, who lives a frisbee's throw from Sweetbriar. Bakst, encountered while he was shopping at a local supermarket a few days after the opening, said that his daughter had once attended school at the former West Barrington Elementary School, site of the Sweetbriar development. Bakst said he had recently taken an impromptu tour of the new homes at the invitation of one of the new residents, who was very proud of her new home. Bakst compared the beautiful new homes to those of the high-priced luxury condominiums that were recently completed nearby, saying you really couldn't tell the difference.

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