Metro

Local residents protest housing project

South Providence residents fear gentrification as a result of EveryHome program

By
News Editor
Friday, February 12, 2016

South Providence residents protest Mayor Jorge Elorza’s proposed plan to renovate homes across the city. They fear the initiative will lead to ballooning housing prices, displacing longtime residents.

On Thursday, homeowners and tenants from South Providence and Brown students gathered in front of the mayor’s office in City Hall to protest the EveryHome initiative.

The initiative, announced in October 2015, aims to renew or demolish every abandoned home in Providence over the next six years. The plan involves selling the majority of renovated homes through the real estate market and allowing the free market to determine rental prices, said Evan England, communications director for Elorza.

The protesters fear the program will lead to neighborhood gentrification in South Providence. At the event Thursday, protesters told their stories and declared that they were “breaking up” with Mayor Jorge Elorza as they ripped up paper hearts.

“This is about a market recovery, not a community recovery,” Raymond Neirinckx, a coordinator with the Office of Community Development and Office of Homeownership of Rhode Island, told The Herald.

The protesters said they support fixing abandoned properties, but take issue with the way in which the initiative aims to do so.

Abandoned properties are more likely to become sites for drug activity, prostitution and arson, Neirinckx said. Research suggests that foreclosed abandoned homes lower the values of neighboring properties, he added.

Roline Burgison, a member of the Tenant and Homeowner Association and the Direct Action for Rights and Equality, remembers the three abandoned houses in her neighborhood, South Providence. She recalls their battered doors without locks and how people would pick through the houses, stripping them of copper metal pipes. What she remembers most, though, is the garbage that people would dump on the lawns of the properties — small kitchen appliances, tires, even an oven.

“That wasn’t my community doing that,” she said of her tenant neighbors in South Providence, one of the most impoverished areas in the city. “Nobody from our neighborhood’s going to take a stove and throw it into a lot,” she said ­— someone would have fixed the stove instead.

The EveryHome program

EveryHome  employs three key “tools” intended to revitalize and fill every abandoned and vacant home in Providence, England said.

The first is a receivership program, in which a court-appointed agent — an eligible attorney — becomes a “receiver,” taking on the financial risk of the properties he or she has committed to refurbish. The receiver then goes on to hire available contractors to either renovate or demolish these abandoned homes.

“This allows us to bring the program to scale,” England said. A revolving loan fund of $3 million has been established to offer small, low-interest loans to receivers so they can more quickly renovate homes without taking on all of the risk in the investment themselves.

The second method the EveryHome program will use is diverting homes away from tax sales. When the owner of a home fails to pay property taxes, the taxing authority — in this case, the city of Providence — will sell the house in an effort to recover delinquent taxes. When this happens, the home rarely gets renovated because it is usually bought by a bank. EveryHome seeks to “divert those properties until the Providence redevelopment authority is able to find a buyer who has interest to renovate,” England said.

Third, England said, federal funds from programs such as the Affordable Housing Act and $1 million in Community Development Block Grants will be put forward to renovate an undetermined number of homes.

Creating subsidized housing

In the protest, DARE members demanded that the city allocate half of all renovated homes as low-income housing.

Burgison and Joe Buchanan, the committee representative of DARE, have seen their communities grapple with pervasive poverty of late. The housing crisis of 2007 spurred countless evictions of low-income families in South Providence, forcing many families into homelessness, Burgison said.

“We have poor folks living in our neighborhood trying to survive from day to day,” Buchanan said. “What (Elorza is) doing isn’t affecting the families (who) need it most.”

Furthermore, when the plan was first released, the group asked the mayor to set up a committee with representatives from the communities most affected by the revitalization projects. This request has not been fulfilled by the mayor’s office.

“They treat us like kids,” Buchanan said. “I’m 63 years old. I don’t care what they might think — who are they to dictate to us what we need in our neighborhood?”

England said the mayor’s office has worked closely with community development associations, the THA and Rhode Island Housing to carefully consider how each house will be developed to meet the needs of the Providence community.

There will be more opportunities to place targeted individuals in homes that are rebuilt with the help of federal funding, England said, though the city must still work within the constraints of the grants. “We want to see the city and our residents really recover from the often painful effects of the housing crisis,” he added.

Neirinckx pointed out the irony in the EveryHome project: During the housing crisis, the government evicted people from their homes after they foreclosed, believing that houses needed to be empty in order to sell. But the housing market continued to crumble, along with the empty houses it had produced.

“We created blight under the guise of marketing,” Neirinckx said. Now, the complex issue of Providence’s abandoned homes requires an equally “complex response,” he added.

Buchanan advocates a program that would allow residents who were kicked out of their homes due to foreclosures to have the first chance at becoming a tenant or owner of one of the revitalized homes built in the areas in which they once lived.

While the EveryHome program could help the city start earning taxes again on abandoned properties, it is the surrounding communities who will have to confront the consequences of the government’s actions, Buchanan said. “I’m tired of us bearing the brunt of the city.”

Location, location, location

Buchanan said he worries as much about the government’s strategy in choosing which of Providence’s hundreds of abandoned homes they will renovate. Elorza is “fixing up neighborhoods that have more money,” he added.

The program most heavily targets areas that have already been gentrified, such as Federal Hill, Burgison said.

Federal Hill is indeed set to see a higher density of homes renovated than areas such as Upper South Providence. Upper South Providence has one of the highest concentrations of people below the poverty line in the city, The Herald previously reported.

Local construction

According to Chris Rotondo, organizer of the THA, the city plans to “bundle” together several of the properties and sell them to a national real estate development group.

With nearly 800 abandoned properties up for renovation in Providence, these companies would have the power “to control the landscape of a city,” Rotondo said.

England said that city officials have discussed this idea before, “but it’s not a function of the EveryHome project,” he said.

A liaison associated with each renovation project will work with contractors registered through the state to connect them with receivers who require construction work, England said. This is in accordance with the First Source ordinance, which requires that employers who receive funds from the city’s office of community development, economic development or other city-administered federal program must hire all employees from a list of Providence locals.

But Rotondo said that the city has often failed to adhere to the First Source ordinance, and it could do the same for the EveryHome project. Because most of the homes are allocated to renovators through the receivership program — in which receivers may or may not use city funding — receivers have no duty to draw upon the First Source list.

“It’s a process made possible by law and the discretion of a judge — not a city program,” England said. Rather, the city will play a “supportive role” in the hiring process for homes that come into ownership through the receivership program. “We’re going to ensure that these jobs are going to Providence residents wherever possible,” he added.

Buchanan and Burgison doubt whether the EveryHome project will truly meet that goal.

“The jobs … need to be created for people of color — the minorities — not for the white man and his business,” Buchanan said.

“We have a lot of minority construction workers. As far as I know, they haven’t been hired,” Burgison said.

DARE members also worry that the homes will be built cheaply and quickly, forcing future homeowners or tenants to pay for any necessary repairs in the short term.

“We want clear standards — not just livability, it’s longevity,” said Rotondo. “Can a low-income, first-generation homeowner live in (a house) without having to replace the roof?”

“Yes, everybody deserves a home, but everyone deserves a quality home,” said Malchus Mills, a member of DARE.

Finding the funding

Rotondo realizes that to meet DARE’s demands — increased community employment, clear construction standards and a set proportion of low-income housing — the government would have to put forth more funding. “A lot of this is about putting subsidies down and putting money into this project,” he said.

Even with these subsidies, several South Providence community members expressed worry that the introduction of these homes in their tight-knit neighborhood would spur gentrification.

“Do we want good homes? Yes, we do. But we also want our neighborhood,” Buchanan said.

Burgison, a tenant, fears that she would not be able to remain in her house if rent prices in the area went up. “I’m on a fixed income. I’m trying to find a decent home without rats or cockroaches,” she said.

“They want to give us people who don’t live in our community,” Buchanan said. “There are yuppies and bourgeoisies who want to run our neighborhoods.”

But Urban Studies Professor Stefano Bloch argued that city administrators should not presuppose gentrification in discussing neighborhood revitalization projects.

The danger of these projects is not that the improvements to the neighborhood will make it expensive, Bloch said. The risk is that the renovations will create a profitable opportunity through higher land values.

He stressed the need for mechanisms that would stop profiteering from these properties. Yet he expressed some skepticism concerning the logistics of the EveryHome project.

“What shouldn’t be targeted is the potentially progressive project, but rather the people with power who seek to profit from this,” Bloch said.