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Op-eds, Opinions

Gaur ’21, Fung ’22: Brown displaces Providence communities. What do we owe them?

By and
Op-Ed Contributors
Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Take a walk through Fox Point, the neighborhood immediately southeast of Brown University, and you can almost hear lingering echoes of the once-thriving Portuguese and Cape Verdean neighborhood. The new Chomp Kitchen and Drinks still sports the neon sign of Eagle Super Market, the mom-and-pop Portuguese grocery store the restaurant replaced. Once just across the street, the shuttered Cardoso Travel Agency, offering trips to Portugal and the Azores, has relocated to East Providence.

This displacement of Cape Verdean and Portuguese neighborhoods was not an accident. Today, Fox Point’s original communities have been almost completely replaced by a wealthy, white population, with median household incomes 50 percent higher than the rest of the city and house prices more than double

While Brown University students and administrators may see themselves as bystanders to this neighborhood change, we have facilitated the active destruction and passive gentrification of these original neighborhoods, replacing families with students. Troublingly, the impact of student renters continues to threaten the Providence community today. Climbing rents price out local residents, and landlords routinely discriminate against non-student renters. The University administration’s most recent housing policies stand to exacerbate this damage, unless the University makes intentional efforts to rectify these impacts.

On Oct. 29, Brown announced a spring 2021 housing plan that involves leasing additional off-campus housing and providing all juniors and seniors off-campus housing permission. In her Oct. 29 email to students, President Christina Paxson P’19 cites insufficient housing surrounding College Hill as a limiting factor in Brown’s plans to invite students back to campus. But if the scarcity of housing in Providence financially burdens Brown and its students, who hold disproportionate capital and power, imagine how much it affects our other Providence neighbors. As Brown students move off campus, the supply of available housing for community members shrinks, making the East Side less and less affordable.

To live off campus, students are increasingly pushed to rent in buildings and neighborhoods previously unoccupied by undergraduates. The near-complete transformation of Fox Point is accelerated as families are priced out of housing units, unable to compete financially with student renters. The steady creep of student housing risks moving beyond Fox Point, forcing more neighborhoods into the crosshairs of displacement. Mount Hope, the neighborhood directly north of Brown, is the only East Side neighborhood not classified as high-income. But Mount Hope and Smith Hill to its west could soon face an influx of students searching for inexpensive housing near campus. 

This sudden shock in housing demand comes at a particularly bad time. Prior to the pandemic, housing was already out of reach for many Rhode Island renters. While the median household income in Providence is $42,158, affordably renting a two-bedroom apartment requires an income of $71,160 a year. The economic toll of COVID-19 has made it even more difficult for many Rhode Islanders to pay their rent on time, placing many households at risk of eviction. While a nationwide eviction moratorium from the CDC protects some renters for now, it will likely expire on Jan. 1. Rhode Island court records indicate that eviction hearings are already scheduled for early January, when newly-evicted renters could face homelessness, waves of COVID-19, flu infections and a shortage of available housing. 

This moment calls for us to reexamine Brown’s complicity in creating cyclical poverty and precarity for BIPOC and low-income families. Gentrification’s full impact — uprooting neighborhoods, dissolving community networks and destroying cultural centers — can never be repaid in full, as communities no longer exist in the same way as they did before displacement. However, University investment in community housing is an immediate and tangible way to begin offsetting years of damage and move beyond lip service in supporting BIPOC communities. Investing in housing that serves marginalized and low-income populations is anti-racist work. Given Brown’s role in driving gentrification, the University must invest in mitigating past and potential displacement. 

What Brown Owes: HOPE’s demands for the university

In order to actualize the anti-racist work of fighting gentrification and displacement in Providence, Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, a student group advocating for housing justice, implores the University to implement the following recommendations.

Invest in affordable housing in the local community
The best way to remedy housing scarcity is to build affordable housing. Brown should direct University funds and endowment money to support the construction of local housing through partnerships with non-profit community development organizations, such as members of the Housing Network of Rhode Island. Many other universities, such as Harvard and Duke, have invested in affordable housing and supported the offering of low-interest housing loans to community members for decades.  

Pay property or land taxes

Brown’s nonprofit status exempts it from paying property taxes. Brown occupies some of the most lucrative real estate in Providence, forgoing taxes approximated at more than $38 million a year in 2012. That year, the University instead gave $6.4 million in voluntary payments. Paying a property tax could commit Brown to sustainably funding housing, education and infrastructure for the city of Providence. 

Commit to building more high density dorms 

The University recently unveiled plans to build additional dorms for undergraduate students, a step we applaud. Providing more high density on-campus housing is an essential part of stopping student sprawl. Still, the University can do far more to incentivize students to stay on campus by not just building more dorms, but also lowering the cost of on-campus housing and renovating existing dorms.

Release data about student off-campus housing locations 

It is difficult to define student gentrification without a clear picture of when and where Brown students are moving. The University must be transparent and release anonymized data of student rental locations, so we may better identify the neighborhoods at risk of student outpricing and inform neighborhood responses to gentrification. 

Restrict students from displacing BIPOC/working class communities 

Based on the aforementioned housing data, Brown should inform student renters of communities particularly vulnerable to displacement and encourage students to only rent in areas with pre-existing student-occupied housing, limiting off-campus housing to College Hill and parts of Fox Point.

We recognize that COVID-19 binds both administrators and students, and Brown’s de-densifying measures are designed to preserve student safety amidst the pandemic. Our intent is not to demonize the administration for pursuing safe dorming options. Student safety is important! We also understand that the housing crisis in Providence is upheld by unjust systems far larger than students’ individual decisions to live off campus. 

However, we must both fight for institutional housing reform and also consider our responsibilities as gentrifiers in our community. It might feel unsatisfying to live in off-campus homes when you realize how you are occupying a space that once belonged to a local family. But this guilt is a necessary shock of recognition, placing ourselves within a history of community harm. Looking toward the future, we must privilege impact over intent when considering the effect of Brown’s housing policy on the Providence community. Allowing all juniors and seniors to move off campus may irrevocably transform neighborhoods, outpricing and disrupting entire communities. These consequences will reverberate long after many of us pass through the city.

We at Brown are accountable to our neighbors for the damage inflicted at the hands of our university. As students, we must remember the communities who have been pushed out, and make them a central and undeniable part of Brown’s story. We must recognize our proximity to power by holding administrators accountable and contributing our fair share to the Providence community. It is time for Brown to pay what it owes.

Dhruv Gaur ’21 is the director of HOPE and Lauren Fung ’22 is the equity and inclusion chair. Gaur and Fung can be reached at dhruv_gaur@brown.edu and lauren_fung@brown.edu, respectively. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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  1. Releasing data on students’ addresses is a huge privacy leak (and breach of trust between off-campus renters and the university).

    • Worrying about privacy leaks and breaches of trust in a rental agreement comes from a place of privilege. BIPOC People are dying. How dare you.

  2. As it stands, this opinion piece hasn’t identified any concrete action that would be taken with this data (beyond “identifying the neighborhoods at risk”, which we seem to know already – it’s the nearby neighborhoods).

    I’m all for engaging in a discussion on whether the risks and downsides of releasing student data provided in confidence is worth the benefits. But, as it stands, no concrete benefits of having this data have been identified, while there are strong downsides.

    • In a single moment in time, sure, “nearby neighborhoods” is an okay description of the places at risk of gentrification. But do you know *when*, for example, students started moving up into Mt. Hope? Do you know approximately how many students have found housing in Smith Hill? Do you know how those numbers have changed over time?

      Student spread seems like a dynamic process, so learning more about when and where student housing has changed is important! As for privacy, anonymized and aggregated (to the nearest block or few blocks) geodata would protect renter privacy

      • You make a good point re: studying how the spread happens, though it seems unlikely the spread will creep much farther than walking/biking distance ever. Anonymized & aggregated data also seems like a good solution!

  3. A bad example says:

    I don’t dispute that Brown has historically contributed to the displacement of Black and Cape Verdean communities but I take issue with this op-ed’s citation of the relocation of Cardoso Travel Agency as an example of gentrification.

    The median household income of East Providence is 2k more than the median household income in Fox Point. Compared to East Providence High School’s 88%, Hope High School (nearest to Fox Point) reported a graduation rate of only 66%.

    Just from the numbers, it doesn’t appear likely that the Cardosos were displaced from Fox Point to East Providence.

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