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Drafted Providence housing plans draws critiques, recognition of positive efforts

Brown students and local housing expert call for more specific action, community development

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Students and local housing experts suggested that the proposed plan was ultimately lacking in any real commitment.

In an effort to provide more housing and homeownership opportunities to Providence residents, the city released a draft of its first Anti-Displacement and Comprehensive Housing Strategy on Aug. 26.

The drafted plan, which the city worked on with RKG Associates, an economic, planning and real estate consulting firm, makes recommendations that aim to “ensure Providence offers housing that is affordable, safe and equitable to people of all income, age and ability levels,” said the city’s Director of Communications, Planning and Development Katherine Hypolite. 

To reach these goals, the plan incorporates multiple policies and projects, such as allowing developers to create more housing units if they increase affordable housing units and accessibility requirements. The plan would also change existing programs, such as creating more benefits for applicants in the home repair program, and introduce new programs such as an energy efficiency program that would provide more resources to landlords to create energy-efficient homes. 

The plan also specifically acknowledges the detrimental impact of historic redlining, segregation and “decades of racist and unequal policies.”

Work on this plan originally began in fall 2019, and the full and final plan will be released this fall, according to Hypolite. 

Following its release, the first draft has received some community pushback. 

Although the plan contains a lot of “interesting ideas,” said Brenda Clement, director of the research-based advocacy group Housingwork RI, she would like to see more specific steps and assignments. 

“Plans are great,” Clement told The Herald, “but we’ve done lots of planning in the city before, and all they do is sit on a shelf.” 

Dhruv Gaur ’21, Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere co-director, echoed Clement’s sentiments. 

“This is a strategy, but there’s not really any commitment,” he said. “There’s no commitment devices or any sort of policies that will come out of this.”  

According to Hypolite, steps in the plan have been organized into three different time-frames: “short, medium and long-term implementation.” While zoning and policy changes “may be relatively quick to implement within one to three years,” other steps, like creating new funding mechanisms and new units “may take more time to realize,” she said.

Clement felt that there were more pressing issues at hand. “The historic job loss that COVID has brought on has increased the number of people who are financially insecure, and therefore housing insecure, dramatically.” 

In Rhode Island, 12.9 percent of homeowners would have been at risk of missing monthly housing payments without the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Securities Act, according to the Providence Business News

“We’re worried that people, particularly after the (evictions) moratorium expires, that more and more people are going to be at risk of losing their housing.” Clement said, referring to a nationwide eviction moratorium that extends until December. “Time is ticking … and we’ve already started work on it, but we need to ramp it up.”

HOPE Advocacy Chair Rocket Drew ’22 voiced a concern that eviction moratoriums could be delaying the problem rather than solving it, saying that action “should be coupled with rental assistance or rental relief, so that evictions don’t just get pushed off to December when there’s going to be a flood.” 

Gaur felt the plan lacked input from the communities most impacted by it. “Tenants, people who need affordable housing, community organizations, they all need to be part of the legislative process as each of the goals in this strategy are realized.” Gaur said.

HOPE Advocacy Chair Gabriel Mernoff ’22 also pointed out that the 10 day-long public comment period, which began after the plan was announced, was too short. “Their plan does have some good stuff about affordable housing and increasing affordability of housing, but it could go much further,” he said. “I did feel like the process of this community input was kind of token(izing).”

Hypolite said that community input had been integral to the draft plan’s creation. ”Over the course of nine months, city staff, alongside RKG Associates, began a robust public engagement process,” she said.” As part of that process, a series of discussion groups, stakeholder interviews and community working sessions helped to provide essential insights for the development of the preliminary recommendations.” 

She also added that “the feedback received (in the public comment period) will be integrated into the final plan to ensure the strategy aligns with the community’s visions and goals.”

Despite these critiques, Gaur felt that this was a genuine effort that can improve the lack of affordable housing options in Providence, and that it is not something the city can fix entirely on its own. “My impression is the city is making a genuine effort, but it’s kind of often hamstrung by revenue constraints,” Gaur said. 

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