Op-eds, Opinions

Kent-Daggett ’19: City should prioritize low-income residents

By
Op-Ed Contributor
Friday, October 19, 2018

In an Oct. 15 column, Andrew Friedman ’19 made a simplistic and offensively ahistorical argument for Edge College Hill II — the new luxury student housing development on Canal Street. Positioning himself opposite “multiple prominent local advocacy groups, two city councilors-elect and an incumbent city councilwoman,” Friedman suggested that the new tower is a pragmatic investment for the city because, in his words, “why have less money when you can have more?” Friedman’s analysis doesn’t dredge much deeper than this facile line. In reality, debates about public investment in private real estate developments are worthy of more nuanced consideration beyond the city’s tax ledger, and a serious analysis of wealth and development in Providence illuminates why Edge College Hill II (and projects like it) are, in fact, “morally degenerate.”

Wealthy students who can afford to live in Edge College Hill should be the City of Providence’s lowest investment priority. The history of urban planning and development in Providence — and the United States as a whole — is one long story of promoting the comfort of the elite over the most basic well-being and stability of low-income communities and communities of color. After World War II, these communities were pinballed by redlining, urban renewal, “slum clearance” and freeway construction — almost always in the name of the public good and all in the span of a single lifetime. Ignoring this history of segregation and displacement is more than naive; it is willfully and negligently ignorant. While one could argue that the City can invest in public and luxury housing, a brief historical survey shows that development in Providence has largely been a zero-sum game. Time and again, desperate city and state officials have subsidized luxury condominiums, out-of-state developers and failed private ventures while half of all Rhode Island renters are cost-burdened. In practice, public investment in a building like Edge College Hill has negated the possibility of a public housing project or a shelter — basic needs that have been systematically denied or physically destroyed in the communities most in need. In addition, the accompanying $19 million tax stabilization agreement means that the development does not contribute to public programs.

The straightforward finances tell a similar story: According to the New York Times, the median family income of Brown’s student body was $204,000. In comparison, Providence’s median family income is $43,000. Housing is deemed affordable if it comprises no more than 30 percent of a family’s monthly income. For a single person in Providence, affordable means rent no higher than $925 per month — significantly less than a $1,700 studio, $2,200 one-bedroom, $1,350 room in a two-bedroom or $1,085 room in a three-bedroom at 257 Thayer. (Prices were unavailable for Edge College Hill II.) For a Brown student, a median family income of $204,000 means that an apartment at 257 Thayer and a three-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan would be considered affordable. While I don’t pretend to know the financial circumstances of individual students (regardless of their economic background), developments like Edge College Hill cater to the wealthy on college campuses who don’t require state-subsidized housing more than the people of Providence. Why bother introducing “competitive new supply” to an income bracket that doesn’t need any more help? While Friedman argues that “students want a nice place to live that doesn’t break the bank,” Providence residents with objectively higher needs have been demanding the same thing for decades. If the anti-luxury argument were in need of a pithy reduction, it would be this: There is no better public investment than affordable housing. 

It is also worth interrogating Friedman’s discussion of Direct Action for Rights and Equality. DARE has been fighting for the rights of poor and working class families, people of color, immigrants, women, youth and LGBTQ+ community members since 1986 and is in the midst of multiple campaigns for fair housing legislation. But Friedman shrugs off the organization’s letter to city officials, citing the political and financial impracticality of rent control and affordable housing. While the city’s history of handouts to wealthy developers is “simply the going rate” of development, any challenge to regressive tax breaks is met with a shrug and a cry of “pragmatism.”

While I do credit Friedman for offering an unabashed defense of rich students’ housing preferences, students would all benefit from heeding the words of local experts and elected officials. That isn’t to say Brown students should never contradict organizations like DARE, but we should give their claims more credit than Friedman’s. For Friedman — who, like most Brown students, might leave Providence after graduation this May — to dismiss DARE as “nearsighted” illustrates a worldview so small-minded as to be preemptively disqualifying from writing about local problems.

Ultimately, Friedman’s position is just another manifestation of a much larger problem. As detailed in my Sept. 24 article in the College Hill Independent, entire neighborhoods are being remade with the same deference to wealthy residents and their desired amenities. While the merits of Edge College Hill as a publicly subsidized luxury development could be debated endlessly, a more inclusive analysis of Providence real estate and the city’s long history of segregation and displacement under the guise of pragmatism takes the convenient shine off of Friedman’s slick math.

Colin Kent-Daggett ’19 can be reached at colin_kent-dagett@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to  letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

  • TheRationale

    Adding more housing supply will only drive rents lower. All those rich kids who would then go to Edge II or 257 Thayer will no longer be taking normal housing that is currently overpriced precisely due to undersupply. Guess which prices will go down? The regular places. It’s almost like your “willful ignorance” of extremely well-understood economic phenomena has gotten in the way of your supposedly elevated moral status as a champion of the poor unfortunate souls of Providence.

    Bad arguments for horrible, horrible policies do not suddenly become defensible because you try to claim a moral high ground and insult those who disagree with you. What matters is what’s true.

    • Colin Kent-Daggett

      or! instead of waiting for price drops to trickle down the housing market (which they don’t), we could just…. build poor people homes that they can afford! thinking luxury housing will create low-income housing isn’t a well-understood economic phenomena, it’s wishful thinking maliciously propagated by the same developers who live off of public subsidies

    • Colin Kent-Daggett

      if building luxury housing made other housing cheap then san francisco would be affordable…. oh wait

      • TheRationale

        SF is the poster child of failed housing policy. Between rent control, building codes that prohibit blocking existing views (i.e. you can’t build up!), subsidized housing requirements, and onerous mandatory environmental impact studies, it’s quite clear why the rents are astronomical. Major inflows of investment money and tech profits also drive prices up, but the city and state do their best to make matters as bad as they can be.

        • Colin Kent-Daggett

          Ah here’s the nuance! Adding luxury buildings is just “supply and demand” but any attempt to implement well-established measures to protect low-income residents are just too onerous!

        • Colin Kent-Daggett

          My problem with the nonsensical supply and demand math is this: yes, adding more building supply would lower costs. but only if demand was staying the same (i.e. the city’s population was stable) and the supply was accessible! But adding luxury housing is adding supply to an income bracket that is already flooded with units and only incentivizes more rich people to move to Providence! So rather than reducing cost, it just leads to the construction of more and more luxury housing, raising the average cost over time.

          • TheRationale

            It’s perfectly sensible and highly predictable. The people who have that much money are the ones who can suck up the costs. But for everyone else, the onerous property tax bills and regulatory compliance costs make it unprofitable to serve the rest of the area. So they don’t get served. It’s a choice between counterproductive and uninformed policy – which places like Providence and SF emotionally insist on year over year – and one based on a centuries-old, data-driven economic consensus on housing markets. I can’t count the number of economics books that predict exactly what you complain about – as a precise result of the housing policies you suggest for the reasons I have given here. Let the housing market find its own level and you will house nearly everyone. Place restrictions on who can do business where and for how much, and you guarantee a housing shortage until you turn back the policy. It’s been studied time and again across the ages and around the world.

          • Colin Kent-Daggett

            please let me know in 10 years what you think of the successes and failures of the currently market-driven approach to housing in america shake out. when there’s a shantytown in your city because it was just ‘always too unprofitable’ or ‘onerous’ to build housing for poor people, maybe you’ll reconsider. all of the measures cities consider putting in place are already the minimal defense measures they have against an inherently injust system. housing shouldn’t be privately owned in the first place! I don’t think any private company is responsible and accountable (or even interested) enough to provide for all people, so why would we pretend that they can and will?