"Gentrification is Breaking Our Hearts"

The Affordable Housing Crisis in Providence

by Jack Brook

Illustration by Teri Minogue

published February 18, 2016

Roline Burgison has been forced to leave from over ten different houses in South Providence despite never missing a day of rent. A combination of poorly constructed housing, problematic landlords, and most of all, a series of landlord foreclosures has kept her on the move, as was the case with the last house she lived in, on 4080 Public Street. 

“My landlord came and got his rent and the next day I get a paper in the mail,” Burgison told me, referring to the house on Public Street. “It was the bank from Boston, telling me that my house was up for foreclosure.”

Burgison, a 53-year-old American woman and mother of four grown men, used to work as a security guard, but now lives on a fixed Social Security income after suffering a severe back injury from a car accident. The average income required to rent a single family apartment in Providence is over $40,000—yet Burgison receives less than $800 a month, which has made it difficult for her to find, in her words, a “reasonable” place in Providence’s South Side. 

Despite living on the South Side for 30 years, she recently relocated to Cranston, as it was easier to find a home, though she continues to search for an affordable house in Providence. Since then, the frustrated Burgison has become involved with the Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), a Providence-based organization that seeks to empower low-income families in communities of color and give them a voice in social justice issues. Affordable housing is one of DARE’s primary concerns.

On the morning of February 11 Burgison shared her story as the first speaker in the DARE demonstration against the mayor’s new housing plan, Everyhome. Other protesters crowded behind her outside the mayor’s office on the second floor of the Providence City Hall, holding large cardboard cut-outs of broken hearts. The protest’s name—Gentrification is Breaking Our Hearts—revealed the fears of many middle class and low-income city residents about Everyhome, a heavily subsidized program designed to clear the city of approximately 650 abandoned and neglected houses. The program allows investors and local contractors to renovate and redevelop these houses, which the protestors feared would ultimately lead to the displacement of local residents from their neighborhoods. They felt that Everyhome could and should be used as a means to create affordable housing units.

“I am from Providence and I want to be back here in Providence,” said Burgison. “We love Providence, we don’t want to be pushed out of our homes.”


The Illusion of Everyhome

On the surface, the Everyhome plan sounds great: fix up and resell vacant homes which drag down property values and become hotspots for drugs and urban decay. The logistics of the program, however, remain ominously vague and unclear, at least in the minds of Burgison, DARE, and other local activists. They want answers—Who exactly will be receiving these new houses? Will it be the city’s low-income residents or wealthy outsiders? And what steps will City Hall take to check what could potentially turn into an unregulated free market, with the redeveloped houses being turned over for maximum profit? 

According to Raymond Neirinckx, coordinator for the State of Rhode Island Housing Resources Commission, the real problem with Everyhome is that it lacks a sense of “vision and purpose” for these properties, aside from simply putting them back on the market. 

“The community should not suffer indignity of losing homes and then not get the opportunity to recover them,” Neirinckx told me. “This should be about a community recovery, not a market recovery.” 

Although DARE had met with mayor Elorza in early December, the organization feels that its questions about the vision of the program still remain unanswered. The city has not responded to DARE’s most ambitious demand—that 50 percent of the houses to be recovered, or around 300, be set aside for very low-income families. 

“Everyhome is specifically targeted to vacant and abandoned homes,” Evan England, the mayor’s press secretary, told me. “It does not require affordable housing, but that city supports that. It is incredibly important, but not necessarily wise to conflate those two priorities.”

Malchus Mills, an African-American with a graying beard and a cane, stepped up as the next speaker after Burgison. A 63-year-old disabled war veteran on a fixed income, Mills, too, has been forced out of the city he would like to call home, and lives in Pawtucket instead. What troubles Mills in particular is the lack of community involvement in the mayor’s housing plan—one of DARE’s main requests is the creation of a community advisory board. According to his press secretary, the mayor rejected this request on the grounds that the court system, which oversees the investors who redevelop the houses, has ultimate authority on that matter and would have to consent. In other words, it’s not his problem.

“How can you say you are helping the community when you’re not talking to us in any way?” Mills thundered. “In conjunction with Valentine’s Day, Mayor Elorza, our love affair with you is over,” He ripped a red heart in half and tossed it on the floor, to the resonant applause of the twenty-five protesters, a mix of students and older folks from across all demographics, many of whom wore red DARE t-shirts. 

Concluded Joe Buchanan, 63, the vice president of DARE and the protest’s final speaker: “We’ll be back, five, six days in a row if we have to, Mayor Elorza, because it’s our city hall. We put you in here, we can take you out too.”


Gentrification as Colonization

While no one on either side believes that abandoned houses should remain in their present state, members of DARE consider healthy urban development a matter of recognizing the voices of the poor in the redevelopment of their neighborhoods and a prime opportunity to construct much needed affordable housing units alongside market-priced ones. One solution Neirinckx suggests is to have the city work with the Providence Housing Authority to see if residents in public housing can become homeowners of redeveloped properties, which would free up space in the crowded public housing for other families. But since Everyhome provides no incentives or policies for any such initiative—indeed, affordable housing is explicitly not one of its priorities—this opportunity will likely be lost. 

Ironically, Mayor Elorza wrote his thesis at Roger Williams University School of Law, in 2007, on “Absentee Landlords, Rent Control and Healthy Gentrification: A Policy Proposal to Deconcentrate the Poor in Urban America.” In it, Elorza writes that, “the focus of advocates for the poor should be on intervening at a particular point in the vicious cycle [of gentrification] that will convert it into a virtuous cycle that creates ‘cumulative upward movement’ in the living conditions of the poor.” Which, in a sense, is exactly what DARE is seeking to do—intervene in the process of redeveloping neighborhoods full of abandoned houses and ensure the residents of those neighborhoods have a voice and the chance to live in these redevelopments. 

Elorza also writes that many policy interventions do not “address the root causes [of gentrification] as they fail to develop the poor’s capacity to determine their own fate at the local neighborhood level.” Rotondo and Mills emphasize that the advisory board DARE proposes would be a way for the interests of the city to align with those of the communities it is supposedly seeking to help. 

“At the end of the day, gentrification is a colonization tactic,” says Christopher Rotondo, an organizer for DARE. “It’s a way to move people out of a space that you now desire. Neighborhoods change all the time and the way they change and why is based on political power.”

This same political power could be harnessed to ensure that much-needed change takes places. It appears that Elorza’s ideas are now being put to test—the only question is whether he and the city will act on them.


The Roots of the Crisis

The bitterness and resentment manifest in the DARE protest are rooted in the rising crisis of the affordable housing deficiency in Rhode Island, nowhere more apparent than in Providence. While by law ten percent of Providence’s housing must be set aside as long-term affordable (i.e. for families earning 80 percent or less of the city’s median income), a 2015 housing report by Roger Williams University concluded that this benchmark was woefully insufficient. In 2014, about fifteen percent of houses in Providence were considered affordable housing, but even so, households earning $30,000 or less—about half of those renting—were not able to rent an average-priced 2-bedroom apartment in any Rhode Island city or town. 

Even worse, in the last fifteen years, Rhode Island has had the second smallest increase in housing units among all states, and rental vacancies are at a 20-year low. It’s harder than ever for middle and lower class families to find housing, let alone something affordable. And for those who do, the cost of living in a house proves to be a drain on resources—according to the Roger Williams report, 57 percent of Providence renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. This is well above the national average of 49 percent reported by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. 

Because Providence is already experiencing an affordable-housing crisis, Rotondo believes that Everyhome could exacerbate the situation by serving as a vehicle for gentrification. After an investor is allowed to redevelop a property, the entire dynamic of a neighborhood can change, sending a ripple effect throughout the local community, usually in the form of much higher rents. It is true that in many ways this change can be positive—a cumulative decrease in poverty (ideally by helping increase the well being of the poor, as opposed to simply forcing them out) and an increase in businesses and urban benefits like parks. Moreover, there have been a variety of controversial studies, including one recently released by the California government, which have revealed that development does not necessarily force the majority of residents out of the neighborhood and can correlate with reduced rent prices in the long-term. 

But Rotondo says that while redevelopment has many potential benefits, what concerns him most is the lack of agency granted to the poor in these neighborhoods. It’s all well and good to seek to eradicate poverty through redevelopment, he adds, but the voices of those who will be affected, for better or worse, should be heard in the process of reshaping the neighborhood. 


The Powers That Be

There are four abandoned houses in a stretch of two blocks on Greeley Street in South Providence. Two on Tell Street by Federal Hill, another on Mangolia, and more on Ellery—all addresses on a list which the city has provided DARE of Olneyville and South Providence houses slated for redevelopment. These geographically consolidated properties are exactly the sort that, when redeveloped, have the potential to fundamentally alter the landscape of their neighborhoods.

“A lot of these properties are not going to be profitable,” Rotondo told me. “Part of the idea that’s been floating around is to bulk sell units to national investors.” 

The properties would then likely become high-priced single-family homes, as opposed to affordably priced multi-family structures, he adds. There are millions of dollars in various funds in the Everyhome “toolbox”, and all are open to investors regardless of whether the goal of their projects is to produce affordable housing or not. Without proper incentives, why would any profit-minded investor create affordable housing? The subsidies could have been set aside solely to encourage affordable housing, a policy the city failed to mandate. 

Abandoned houses are currently redeveloped through a receivership program, in which a court-appointed attorney is paid to raise money to hire contractors and fix up properties before selling. The attorney gets to keep the profits of the sale, along with being paid for his work by the government. The problem, Rotondo says, is that there is no entity outside City Hall that can help oversee the actions of the receivers. 

“Who better knows what’s going on in a community than the people who are there everyday?” Mills says. “These are the people who should be involved in the decision.” 

It is clear that there is a deep mistrust between many low-income Providence residents and their city government, in no small part due to a profound lack of transparency. Minorities and low-income residents don’t have many reasons to believe that investors and developers have their best interests in mind—for instance, in 2014, Santander Bank was sued by the city of Providence for redlining. When residents feel they are not able to participate in public policy initiatives or hold the political leadership accountable to their promises, civic relationships inevitably corrode, creating a dangerous division between those with power and those without. 


Creating a Witness for the Community

Joe Buchanan, 63, rested on the steps of City Hall after the protest. His beige collared shirt poked out from underneath a black one which read, in sparkling blue and red letters, “President of the Streets.” A South Providence resident his whole life, Buchanan has been an advocate for social justice since he was 12-years-old. 

“We will fight any fight we need to fight, we’ll take any action we need to take to get done what needs to be done,” Buchanan says, reflecting on the day’s protest and emphasizing each word with a thump of his cane. “He [the Mayor] thinks that all we [DARE] do is rabblerouse, but what we really do is create a witness for our community. We’re not going away, because community doesn’t go away.” 

But it very well could, if Everyhome turns out to be create a cycle of harmful gentrification, one in which low-income residents lack agency in the redevelopment of their own neighborhoods. 


JACK BROOK B’19 hopes Roline Burgison can move back to the South Side.