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Community members worry that increase of off-campus college students pushes local residents out

After the University has allowed more students to live off-campus, some are concerned that affordable housing will be harder to find in College Hill and Fox Point

In a housing market that was already struggling to keep up with demand, the University’s expansion of off-campus housing permission amid the COVID-19 pandemic have triggered concerns among both locals and some Brown students that an influx of students into nearby Providence neighborhoods will push out families looking for affordable housing.

“People have increasingly been priced out of (College Hill and Fox Point) because they can’t compete with students,” said Director of Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere Dhruv Gaur ’21. 

“What we're afraid might happen is that landlords will see … a much more lucrative opportunity of renting for students, and no longer want to rent to Providence families,” Gaur added. 

While students are able to split rent with friends to manage the prices, Gaur noted that most Providence families “just don’t have that kind of purchasing power.” 

Despite the challenges that Providence residents are currently facing, Gaur pointed out that “Brown has basically offered off-campus permission, not only to all seniors, but … to all juniors in its student body.” 

An influx of college students exacerbates a pre-existing housing supply shortage, according to Brenda Clement, the director of HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University. “Prior to the pandemic, we already had a housing shortage in the city and throughout the state,” Clement said. “We need to be producing thousands of units per year in order to keep up with demand, so … obviously it’s a kind of basic economic issue when supply is limited, but demand is steady or growing.” 

Quynh Tran ’21 said that since Brown didn’t let many students know about the status of their off-campus permission requests until the summer, there was “a huge scramble to move off campus.” She was able to move to a three-story house near Power Street which has been converted to an apartment, and she said that all of the other units and most of her next door neighbors are Brown students. 

But the issue of gentrification in Providence predates the pandemic, Tran said.

Properties on College Hill that could have been used for affordable housing have been turned into student residences in recent years. “We have a situation right now … where a lot of the houses surrounding the University are being sold to developers who are converting what were once residential homes into the equivalent of student dorms,” said Ward 2 Councilwoman Helen Anthony. While these new buildings may not officially be University-owned, they indirectly contribute to the University’s already massive real estate footprint, according to Gaur. 

Gaur emphasized that this footprint extends beyond College Hill. “Brown, as a 501(c)(3), doesn’t pay property taxes like other institutions in the city do, but Brown also owns a ton of land … not just on this main campus but in a number of auxiliary campuses across Providence,” Gaur said. 

“The best way to remedy this is for Brown to pay its fair share in taxes,” Gaur said. “Or, like they recently did for the Providence Public School District, to invest a specific stream of money to building affordable housing in this city.”

Though the University is largely exempt from paying property taxes to Providence, it has an agreement to make voluntary payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOT payments. The University made $6.2 million in PILOT payments in fiscal year 2020, up from $4.38 million in fiscal year 2018. But according to an estimate from 2012, the University would owe the city about $38 million per year if it paid commercial real estate taxes on its properties.

In addition to issues that the University’s off-campus community has caused for Providence residents looking for affordable housing, Anthony said that students have also disrupted the lives of College Hill’s existing residents. She cited noise, garbage and property maintenance issues as the community’s main concerns. 

“These are residential neighborhoods,” Anthony said. “The unique nature of College Hill is the relationship between the University and its residential community, but I think in the resident’s perspective … there needs to be a little more respect of their quality of life.”

Still, Anthony and Clement both said they view Brown as a strong community partner and appreciate the energy that students bring to the city. Going forward, they said, the solution should not be to segregate students from the rest of the Providence community.

“When students come into the state and particularly in areas like the East Side and other areas that already have a lack of housing, the demand (for student housing) often can be competing with others, who need housing as well,” Clement said. “So, the solution isn't to … not have students — the solution is to create more housing so that everyone has access to safe and affordable housing.”


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