Providence For Sale

by by Jesse Strecker

illustration by by Emily Fisherman

Providence, along with the rest of Rhode Island, remains in the throes of a severe housing crisis. Eviction messengers march the streets of neighborhoods like Mt. Pleasant, Olneyville and others, where foreclosure rates have left entire blocks empty, and it is only getting worse. A recent study by the Pew Charitable Fund predicts that foreclosures will affect one in 31 Rhode Island homes before 2010.

After years of tax breaks intended to 'starve the beast' of government spending, budgets have run dry, effectively halting any responses from local government. Public-private partnerships, however, continue to have a huge impact on local communities stricken by the recession. Tom Judd, who works as a community organizer for Housing Action, a tenant and homeowner's rights group, told the Independent, "local governments have failed to recognize that when people have to worry about where they're going to live, it makes it a lot harder to think about where they're going to work."
The Writing on the Wall
The state's predicament is not just a recent phenomenon. Local elected officians, worried by the deficit, largely ignored cries from advocacy groups to put the brakes on the state's rapidly inflating housing bubble. Eventually, banks like HSBC did so themselves through massive foreclosures that shattered property values. By February 2007, the ProJo was calling the subprime loan foreclosures a crisis. The economy's uncertainty and its associated struggles have led many individuals and community groups to organize. Displaced residents who have never been active in politics before are coming together to defend their right to a roof. Efforts have come from local homeless communities, for example the self-governing settlement, 'Hope City', and the resuscitation of the Street Sights newspaper. In many ways they have been more responsive to providing relief than government programs.
The state's budding if belated response can be attributed to the federal stimulus money for stabilizing neighborhood residency. But a proposal for the Housing Resource Commission's Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program has yet to be released; a table charting down-payment assistance across municipalities funded through the commission's Neighborhood Stabilization Program lists Xs down every column.
Won't you be my neighbor?
In an effort to preserve local communities, non-profit and community development corporations are urging the city to boost incentives for historic preservation projects. Organizations such as Grow Smart Rhode Island tout these projects as a way to revitalize abandoned buildings and struggling neighborhoods. Such efforts have been popular in Providence for years, especially ones centered on mills and factories.
The Baltimore-based development firm, Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse (SBER), for example, has undertaken a massive project to redevelop a series of former train factories. The American Locomotion (ALCO) project plans to transform the cluster of downtown neighborhoods known as The Valley, recently described by the New York Times as an "Urban Dessert," into the newly dubbed 'Promenade District'--despite more than 100 small businesses. The district will stretch from Providence Place to the largely immigrant community of Olneyville Square. One of the first projects in the ALCO involves converting the Rising Sun Mill complex in Olneyville into an mixed-use commercial center offering legal services and chic restaurants.
While Struever Bros. promises its proposal will provide scores of jobs for a lagging market, groups such as the Olneyville Neighborhood Association (ONA) disagree. As the neighborhood's demographics shift, they argue that the plan heralds rising housing costs and the dissolution of existing businesses. Twenty percent of the latest project's homes are located in a neighborhood where the medial family income is about half the city average. The homes will become 'workforce housing,' aimed at those earning between 80 and 120 percent of the city's median income. Such an influx of homebuyers and capital raises the cost of living, pushing residents out even before the foreclosure crisis.
One solution to this crowding-out, according to RI Housing Action Coalition member Brenda J. Clement, is historic preservation tax credits. She insists that these tax credits allow for the revitalization of a number of Providence neighborhoods. But the most visible of the tax credit projects that cast old buildings with new uses have failed to meet the needs of neighboring residents, like the Rising Sun Mill and The Plant, another SBER project. Mr. Lemus of ONA told the Independent, "Developers like the Struever Bros. look for the poorest neighborhoods, communities with few resources, so that they can undertake total changes, to kick people out and displace them."
Gonna be okay
Meanwhile, the state has gone ahead with other development projects ranging from revamped downtown hotels to a new security system with nodes along the Narragansett Bay. A recent email from the mayor's office quotes Congressman Jim Langevin endorsing the security system: "Keeping our communities safe is our number one priority as elected officials."
The most visible of these undertakings, however, has been the city's official rebranding as the "Creative Capital." The motto blurs the line between the 'creative sector' and more traditional sections of the local economy. It seeks to integrate the activities of arts-oriented non-profits, universities and think-tanks to realize an economy revolving around immaterial services and goods. The campaign includes initiatives such as Creative Providence, the Department of Art, Culture and Tourism's boosted budget for the so-called 'creative sector'.
North Star Ideas has also suggested a number of ways to boost the campaign's iconic reach, including installing luminous Ps--the campaign's logo is an orange serif with edges pointing both forward and back--on some of the city's skyscrapers. The firm also wants the city to build jungle gyms and slides made out of Ps protruding from sand boxes and encourage local restaurants to offer dishes that serve as emblems of the creative character the city wishes to inhabit.
But as long as the city enables developers like SBER to dissolve existing artists' colonies through a process Laura Mullen, coordinator of the Sustainable Artist Space Initiative describes as "eviction through atrophy," the rebranding campaign will remain a commitment to local arts movements in name only.
With arms wide open
Even though the rebranding campaign is likely to receive only as much funding as the mayor can get from legislature and private investors, it hopes to inaugurate a new era at a time when perilous financial times are forcing droves of Rhode Islanders out of their homes. Plummeting real estate prices have cleared the away for a rush of new homeowners and business development by those who can afford to capitalize on opening markets. The victims are unfortunately the state's most vulnerable residents, who suffer a downward spiral of tremendous debt and homelessness with few opportunities to pull themselves out of it. As local business papers sprout signs of economic recovery, Tom Judd told The Independent, "Watching wealthy landlords walk away from their fourth or fifth rental unit, while banks force tenants to leave has people wondering 'Why is it that these people are making these decisions in our lives?'"

JESSE STRECKER B'10 is lucky to live in a dorm.