Housing court judge likely to run for mayor

Jorge Elorza received attention for fining major banks in the midst of the city’s housing crisis

Contributing Writer
Thursday, October 10, 2013

Elorza began his career in the Providence Housing Court, as did current city mayor Angel Taveras. Elorza has aimed to improve struggling, crime-filled neighborhoods adversely affected by abandoned properties.

When Jorge Elorza announced he was stepping down as a judge on the Providence Housing Court, analysts across the city speculated he was planning a run for mayor. The seat will most likely be empty as the incumbent, current Mayor Angel Taveras, is widely expected to run for governor next year rather than seek a second term.

Though Elorza may be best known for the attention he received from the local media for challenging banks that were allowing vacated houses to sit abandoned — often for years — before actually declaring them foreclosed, he has also worked as a lawyer, scholar and community advocate.

Elorza is expected to face former City Council President Michael Solomon and lobbyist Brett Smiley in next year’s Democratic primary. In addition, some analysts have speculated that former mayor Buddy Cianci will join the race, despite his 2002 conviction on federal corruption charges.

Upon first glance, Elorza bears a striking resemblance to Taveras, said Marion Orr, director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy. Both were raised by immigrant parents in Providence and participated in Head Start — a pre-kindergarten program for low-income children — before attending Harvard. After graduation, both returned to Providence to work as attorneys and, later, judges in the Providence Housing court.

“I wouldn’t call it a pipeline just yet,” Elorza said of his and Taveras’ paths from the housing court to mayoral runs. “Nevertheless, (the Housing Court) entrusts you with a great deal of responsibility to find real solutions to problems … (and) know when to be patient and be impatient and focus on results.”

As housing judges, both Taveras and Elorza focused on protecting struggling neighborhoods from the detriments of abandoned properties, which tend to become hotbeds for vandalism, theft and homelessness, leading nearby property values to plummet in already blighted neighborhoods.

Since the onset of the financial crisis — which left record numbers of U.S. homeowners underwater — the incidence of abandoned and foreclosed properties has increased precipitously.

A central objective of the Housing Court has been to turn these distressed properties into passable real estate, the Journal reported.  Elorza made headlines when he began pursuing the largest residential lending banks in the world and fining them hundreds of thousands of dollars in an attempt to spur them to attend to the hundreds of foreclosed and abandoned properties around the city. After his efforts led to the rehabilitation of a significant number of homes, Elorza declared victory in an interview with CityScapes magazine.

In addition to his work in the court, Elorza has further examined housing matters in his scholarship. During his time at Roger Williams University School of Law, Elorza has taught classes on property, housing law and policy and constitutional law, and he has researched the relationship between law, science and religion and the economics of housing policy.

In his lead article in Cornell’s Journal of Law and Public Policy, Elorza proposed a rent control scheme to encourage resident landlords over absentee landlords in struggling neighborhoods.

Elorza has also spent two years working for financial firms like PricewaterhouseCoopers. Referring to his battle with the big banks, Elorza said that his business background has “helped (him) present figures more effectively and be more detail-oriented.”

Elorza cited his knowledge of the world as one of the major differences between him and Taveras. Having traveled to 17 countries on five different continents, Elorza has developed a vision to revive the local economy that emphasizes the potential to leverage the diversity of the local population to develop networks with emerging markets.

“While our economy grows at a rate of 1 or 1.5 percent per year, emerging economies are growing at a much faster pace,” he said.

Coupled with Providence’s unique geographical location, Elorza said the city is well positioned to engage in the export market.

“I believe in the power of networks. If you bring people together, random atoms collide,” Elorza said. “We should invest in networks — strengthening them and nurturing them to build strong personal relationships.”

Following the withdrawal of a number of Latino candidates, among them City Councilwoman Sabina Matos and Central Falls educator Victor Capellan, Elorza remains the lone Latino candidate. “They dropped out because there was a sense that having more than one Latino would divide the Latino vote,” Orr said.

Elorza will likely benefit from being the only Latino candidate, Orr said. He will  also “gather the support from the coalition that put Angel Taveras into the mayor’s office” — a group of white liberal reformers.

If elected, Elorza would be the second successive Hispanic mayor of Providence, the first being Taveras.

“It’s an interesting question whether Providence is experiencing a transition to Latino mayors,” Orr said, adding that the shift would make sense considering the city’s demographic changes in recent years.