Metro, News

City Council hopefuls talk housing, city finances

Incumbent Yurdin, Gaines ’16 fight to represent Ward 1, Zurier, Holt, Feinstein for Ward 2

Senior Staff Writer
Sunday, September 9, 2018

In the first week back at Brown, students on and off campus may have noticed a range of City Council electoral signs adorning peoples’ gardens. YURDIN and GAINES signs, for instance, can be seen from the corner of India Street all the way up to Fones Alley.

Providence residents will select party representatives for City Council races Wednesday, Sept. 12. Ward 1 is made up of neighborhoods including Fox Point, Wayland and parts of College Hill and downtown Providence, while the University primarily falls under the jurisdiction of Ward 2. Residents of Wards 1 and 2 will vote for their councilpeople directly in Wednesday’s party primary, since both have only Democratic candidates and no general election opponent.

Providence has a total of 15 wards, and each elects one representative to City Council. The Council adopts the city’s annual budget and passes ordinances on city governance and citizen welfare.

In Ward 1, incumbent Seth Yurdin is seeking re-election for his fourth term but is challenged by community activist Justice Gaines ’16. In Ward 2, Sam Zurier previously held the seat for councilperson but announced that he would step down following the end of his second term, according to his May newsletter. Ward 2 Committee favorite Helen Anthony, attorney and member of the Providence Zoning Board, will face off against attorney Ryan Holt and Mark Feinstein, businessman and former professor at Bryant University.

“The City Council itself is sort of divided,” said Gabriel Mernoff ’22 and Providence native. “Everybody’s either a moderate, middle-class interest Democrat or a really progressive working-class (Democrat).”

Ward 1

Yurdin was elected to the City Council in 2006 and again in 2010 and 2014. Yurdin said his term has been characterized by a commitment to progressive issues, referencing the time he had a “direct showdown” with former mayor David Cicilline ’83 in order to reform the Providence External Review Authority, which is a system of civilian oversight over the Providence Police Department, and his creation of the Energy and Sustainability Task Force, which aims to minimize waste and prevent pollution. 

“We’ve gotten a lot of important work done on many progressive issues and also on many issues important to the neighborhood,” Yurdin said, attributing these feats to collaboration with “residents, neighborhood groups, community members, activists (and) other stakeholders.”

Yurdin’s challenger Gaines has also played an active role in increasing civilian involvement in the policing of the city. Gaines partnered with “City Hall and multiple politicians” to get the Providence Community-Police Relations Act passed last year.

Gaines graduated from Brown in 2016 and has worked with community groups Rhode Island Jobs with Justice, Direct Action for Rights and Equality and Providence Youth Student Movement.

The City Council should work to make partnerships with local businesses before looking to “bigger” and “out of state” corporations, Gaines said. She also is interested in changing the current tax code and even reducing the number of parking meters since an abundance of them may make it hard for people to frequent businesses.

Yurdin and Gaines’ positions on the Council’s Student Housing Ordinance have the power to directly influence the lives of Brown students who live off campus. Earlier this year, Yurdin proposed an amendment to a housing ordinance to ensure that no more than four undergraduate students could live together but later rescinded his support for the proposal. Nevertheless, Yurdin still warns that overpopulating buildings is an issue in Providence. It is time to revisit this housing model, Yurdin said, because current practices contribute to the housing crisis, he said.

In reference to the Student Housing Ordinance, Gaines does not think “limiting occupancy” will address the issue of landlords flipping houses and turning them “exclusively into student housing,” since that will not address “the behaviors of developers who are just looking to make a buck off of students.”

Another pressing issue in the Ward 1 election race is the proposed construction of a 46-story tower downtown, which would dramatically alter Providence’s skyline. The developer of the Hope Point Tower, New York-based Jason Fane, is asking to exceed Providence’s building height limit by nearly 500 feet; Yurdin opposes the proposal since such a request ignores a “multi-year planning process” and would “dominate public space,” he said.

Gaines has also opposed the construction of the tower. “We haven’t been investing in our own people. … We’ve just been waiting and trying to import investors who are mainly in it for their own profit. Bringing more of the community level of organizing, bringing the public into the decision making profit, finding solutions that are going to be creative and beneficial to our residents and prioritize them first is really what I would like to see be done in our City Council.”

Gaines urged Brown students to vote in the primaries because it is important that Brown students “make a decision” that will benefit the residents of Providence. 

“Brown does become a bubble, and (Brown students) have to be able to see beyond that,” Gaines said.

Ward 2

Candidates for Ward 2 referenced the City’s finances and the relationship between universities in Providence and the city.

Of the candidates in the running, attorney Anthony has the most experience in public office. She previously served on City Council in Missouri and is currently on the Providence Zoning Board.

“I’ve always been a community activist in everywhere I’ve lived. I’m a big believer in giving back — if you are able,” Anthony said. Anthony hopes to continue the work of her predecessor, Sam Zurier, if elected, she said. Like Zurier, who tried to pass an ordinance to bar anyone under indictment from leadership Sept. 6, Anthony encourages transparency on the part of elected officials and hopes to pass the failed legislation.

Anthony zeroed in on the unfunded pension liability as a drain on the city’s resources. The pension liability is “literally strangling us over our ability to spend the money (on) what we should be spending it on, which is public education, infrastructure and services.” While she admits it is a complicated issue and is against selling or leasing to a private entity, she thinks there are some things that can be done to monetize this asset and move us out of this “critical status.”

Feinstein also considers the health of the city’s finances the biggest issue. Besides addressing the pension liability, the city needs to secure money for infrastructure, obtain a tax plan that is friendly to businesses and homeowners and maintain a good relationship with universities and hospitals in Providence.

Holt, a graduate of Providence College who worked on former President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012, wants to incentivize financial growth by having Providence compete with Boston and Cambridge for commercial residents, he said, and added that the city has “developable land and a talented workforce.” The status of Providence Public Schools, however, can be an obstacle for persons trying to relocate and losing people to the suburbs will negatively affect the city’s tax base, he said. Further cooperation with the universities in Providence are key to improving public schools, Holt said.

Holt is committed to finding creative solutions to get the economy moving and wants to make the many undergraduate students in Providence want to stay after graduation, he said.

Feinstein too hopes to make the city “friendlier” and “a lot more open” so that students will get to know their city “better than they do.”

Anthony thinks that “students and the youth” are going to unite us around these key issues.

“There is nothing wrong with our city that can’t be fixed by what’s right with it. We’re just a couple of right decisions and right mayors away from Providence experiencing some growth that we haven’t experienced in generations, and I want to be part of it,” Holt said.