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Oke ’20: Why isn’t Providence learning from its troubled history with lead?

It’s hard to imagine that just two miles away from the lavish neighborhoods of College Hill, the threat of lead exposure is about to skyrocket in some of Providence’s poorest areas. Following the Flint, Michigan water scandal, the presence of lead in Rhode Island’s pre-1978 homes and vacant buildings has raised some questions around the state’s recent push to increase local property values by revitalizing older buildings.

As recently as 2014, Brady Sullivan Properties — a New England-based real-estate developer — acquired $4 million in tax credits for the renovation of several former mills located across Rhode Island. The U.S. Rubber Lofts project in the Valley and Olneyville neighborhoods — which have some of the lowest median family incomes in the city — seeks to convert the old factory complexes in the area into 302 “loft-style apartments,” with one, two, three and four-bedroom units available for residents to lease.

Despite how appealing the project sounds, it’s important to note the overwhelming effect of gentrification ventures like this have on the existing residents of Providence. The city has a lengthy history of renovation efforts that have disproportionately harmed its minority and low-income populations.

These ideas have returned to the state agenda in recent years. Since his campaign in 2014, Mayor Jorge Elorza has promised to “revitalize (Providence’s) neighborhoods,” and began the process with his EveryHome program in October 2015. Last year, there were almost 800 properties registered as abandoned in Providence, and the six-year plan was intended to either rehabilitate or demolish up to 600 homes in the city. It aims to replace them with new, affordable houses for people previously displaced by foreclosures, housing projects and other local changes. Yet these plans, much like the Brady Sullivan project, have not always lived up to their promises.

Brady Sullivan has a rather concerning history of exercising dangerous and irresponsible practices on multiple occasions: In August 2016, the company was fined $139,171 by the Environmental Protection Agency for not following federal lead paint removal regulations during a restoration project in Manchester, New Hampshire. In May 2015, a subcontractor hired by Brady Sullivan to do a demolition job was found to have left an inhabited building contaminated with arsenic, cadmium and lead. After discovering that the contractors failed to adequately notify the tenants placed at risk by this oversight, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration then imposed a $19,600 fine on the company.

Lead exposure in the low-income communities of Rhode Island is nothing new. Before the use of lead paint was banned nationally in 1978, most New England homes contained significant amounts of lead that continue to show up today. This explains why most cases of childhood lead poisoning in Rhode Island are a result of exposure to the dust from lead paint.

However, the ubiquity of old homes in Rhode Island is most certainly not the sole cause of this state’s alarmingly high rate of lead poisoning in young children. Since 2010, the drinking water in Providence, Cranston and North Providence has exceeded the federal lead standard six times. Almost 13,800 homes in the state receive water through lead-infested pipes that are too expensive for the average low-income resident to replace on their own. A study conducted by the University from 1993 to 2005 showed that 48.6 percent of children from Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, Woonsocket and Newport had been poisoned by lead. In these neighborhoods, children are four times more likely than the national average to be diagnosed with lead poisoning.

These facts should not just concern local parents or tenants — they should enrage us all. How can we sit idly and watch Rhode Island’s government “struggle” to find funding for clean water pipes, yet simultaneously award an out-of-state contracting company millions of dollars in tax credits? What good will these fancy new apartments do for those living in poverty, or in single-parent homes, or in houses that have been deemed unfit by federal standards for habitation?

Not only should we members of the Brown community hold elected officials accountable for this disdainful attack on underprivileged neighborhoods, we must also stand in solidarity with the residents of Providence in their fight for a healthy living environment. In no way am I calling upon every Brown student to disproportionately take up public spaces, or even to get involved in every single local campaign. But paying attention to local news, raising awareness of current events that affect the rest of the Providence community or simply acknowledging the University’s role in the displacement of minorities in the area are small acts that can have a big impact. When the state government’s lack of concern for the well-being of its constituents is so blatant, what choice do we have but to open our eyes and take action?

Bami Oke ’20 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to


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