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Brown’s footprint today: Student housing, taxation

What University expansion, tax-exempt status mean for Providence

This article is part of a series on gentrification and development on the East Side of Providence.

In the last century, the University’s campus boundaries and property ownership have increased significantly, The Herald previously reported.  

Today, the University still continues to grow, with recent projects such as the Brook Street Residence Hall and purchases such as River House — both of which were made to increase housing supply for undergraduate and graduate students — increasing Brown’s footprint. This expansion can have complex impacts, from increasing the amount of non-taxable property in Providence to creating more housing for undergraduate students.

The University’s growth today

“I'm very aware and take very seriously (the) University's responsibility as a good neighbor and as a large institution (that) can have an outsized impact on a community,” said Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey ’91 MA’06.

While University property expansion can lead to tensions “around specific projects or specific issues, in a large part, I think that community collaboration relationship is very positive,” Carey said.

One of the reasons why the University’s campus is expanding is student housing.

“We are expanding residential capacity now, both undergraduate and graduate level,” Carey said. “I think that is extremely important, particularly given that Brown has grown over the past decade — particularly the undergraduate student population.”

Nathaniel Pettit ’20, whose 2020 honors thesis investigated gentrification on the East Side of Providence, told The Herald that the University announced during his senior year it would build two new dorms — Wellness Residential Experience at Sternlicht Commons and Brook Street. Pettit added that the University publicly stated that these projects were in response to the growing number of students moving off campus, which the University recognized contributed to increasing housing prices for the community.

But the University is also set to increase class sizes, The Herald previously reported. This pattern is familiar, Petit said: Through the years, to reduce impact on neighborhood housing costs, the University built new dorms, but increasing class sizes caused the impact to repeat itself.

“What’s the actual impact in numbers?”  Fox Point Neighborhood Association President Nick Cicchitelli said regarding an expanding campus and increasing matriculation. “I don’t know, it’s hard to tell. … (The University has its) own interests to look out for, and that’s why there’s groups like ours that exist.” 

He also said that students, especially upperclassmen and graduate students who live in Fox Point, drive economic activity in the neighborhood. “I’m happy to have that community in Fox Point, … but we have to keep a watch,” said Cicchitelli, who has a background in real estate and is a landlord himself. 

“Obviously, the issues about gentrification and impact on the broader community, both in the past and present … (are) important issue(s),” Carey said. 

“The goal has been to have about 80% of the undergraduate student population living on campus (and) about 20% off,” Carey added. “That's roughly in the 1,200 (undergraduate) student range living off and then, of course, there are graduate (and) medical students as well.”

While the completion of the Brook Street Residence Hall in combination with Wellness will result in an additional 515 beds, Providence residents have pushed back against the expansion, voicing concerns about the design and scale of the Brook Street dorm, The Herald previously reported.

In response, the University revised its plan to accommodate some of the residents’ preferences. “The Brook Street Residence Halls and the Performing Arts Center are two examples of projects that had some significant revisions to the plans that were direct results of conversations with local groups and neighbors,” said University Spokesperson Brian Clark. 

But many residents still thought the University should have incorporated more of their suggestions, The Herald previously reported.

Carey added that, at times, the community welcomes University growth. “One part of (the University’s) strategy has been to foster an appropriate amount of growth in the Jewelry District,” he said. “That's an area I think where growth and development is widely, not just encouraged, but desperately sought after by the city and the state and the neighborhood.”

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“South Street Landing, which was a vacant power plant for 20 years and really kind of loomed over that neighborhood, would not have been redeveloped without Brown,” Carey said. “I think there's a lot of enthusiasm for that.”

Historic preservation adds an additional layer to the University’s potential expansion.

“In our opinion, Brown seems to forget that it exists in a historic neighborhood … which (is) one of its biggest strengths, as far as a sense of a quality of place,” said Brent Runyon, executive director of the Providence Preservation Society. “And their continued expansion is hollowing out places.”

Clark and Carey explained that the University is committed to preserving and employing “adaptive reuse” for historic buildings.

“What makes the headlines is the brand new buildings that weren't there before or, on occasion, the challenge over … an old house that was demolished,” Clark said. “What never makes the headlines is the fact that of the 250 or so buildings that we have on campus, I think 135 of them are over 75 years old (and) take significant expense and work to maintain and preserve on a regular basis.”

Broader housing context

Beyond Brown’s campus, the state of Rhode Island overall is currently experiencing a housing crisis, with a particular shortage of low- and moderate-income housing.

“We have a very, very low vacancy rate for apartments in the city of Providence,” said Peter Asen ’04, deputy director of development and governmental affairs at Providence Housing Authority. This can lead to landlords increasing rents and makes it difficult for people to find housing they can afford, he explained.

“The amount of new apartments being built across the state in general is really not anywhere near what's needed,” Asen said. “That's the case in Providence as well.”

Naturally-occurring affordable housing, in contrast to publicly-subsidized affordable housing, “is much less prevalent in the sense that rents keep going up, even in neighborhoods in Providence, that would have traditionally been thought as … more affordable or lower-income neighborhoods,” he added. This is a result of a number of factors, including the low vacancy rate as well as gentrification, Asen explained.

“Given that there’s supply issues, both here and in the community, you would think that the obvious answer is that everyone should build more housing,” said Gabriel Mernoff ’22.5, co-president of Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere. “Providence should build more housing for low-income people, Rhode Island should build more low-income housing, Brown should build more housing for students.”

But “it gets a little complicated,” he added. 

“Without expanding further into the community, (the University) should rehab existing facilities to fit more students,” Mernoff said, ideally making them more enticing for upperclassmen to want to stay on campus, which “would cause a lot less pressure on the community.” And, when expansion is absolutely necessary, “there should be serious community engagement,” he added. 

Property impact of the University and taxation

“The Brown economic impact on the city is massive, but oftentimes what ends up happening as an unintended consequence is Brown … can buy properties that can be taken off the tax roll,” Cicchitelli said. 

The community was “very sad to see Bagel Gourmet go” and “everyone really liked having a police substation on Brook Street,” Cicchitelli said. The new Brook Street dorm with supposed “newer higher quality retail” may increase the property value, but “it’s just not taxable,” he added. 

The University has been “open to the conversation,” Cicchitelli said, but in order for these conversations to happen, groups like the Fox Point Neighborhood Association have to voice community concerns “and to try to hold them accountable as best we can.” 

Several ongoing efforts are pushing for University accountability, one of which is a collaboration between the student groups HOPE and Students for Educational Equity at Brown. The groups held a press conference April 7 to raise awareness on two bills: H7956, which would limit tax-exempt property, and H7813, which would impose a tax on higher-education, private-institution endowments.

The bills are both sponsored by Rhode Island State Representative David Morales (D - Mt. Pleasant, Valley and Elmhurst). 

“For decades, Brown University and other wealthy private universities have taken advantage of our community by continuously expanding their tax-exempt footprint, which in turn has led to gentrification, the displacement of working people and, most of all, forcing Providence to manage essential city services, such as basic sidewalk and road repairs, with a limited tax base that continues to be deteriorated and depleted,” Morales said at the April 7 press conference. 

Rhode Island State Senator Tiara Mack (D - Providence) introduced S2600 in the Senate, a companion bill to H7956 that would limit tax-exempt property. 

“Nearly half of our city is owned by these tax-exempt institutions,” Mack said. “These holdings have grown over the years to include a number of for-profit operations. These include parking garages, restaurants, retail stores and other solutions outside of the core mission of the institutions involved.”

“It’s part of a way to hold Brown accountable for its positionality in Providence in terms of the exploitation that it’s caused,” Mernoff said of the bills. 

SEE Co-President Carina Sandoval ’23 emphasized that all the money from the endowment tax would go to Providence public schools, which she said she thinks is a “really important distinction.”

“Brown continues to believe that taxes imposed through legislative efforts impede the efforts of higher education institutions to help students, improve education, expand the boundaries of knowledge, advance technological innovation and enhance health and well-being in our local communities,” Clark wrote in an email to The Herald. “Each year we spend funds from our endowment to support this critical work that benefits Providence and Rhode Island. We oppose both the effort to tax properties used for the academic activity that enables universities like Brown to benefit the local economy so extensively, as well as the tax on charitable giving to institutions that contribute to the public good in significant and enduring ways.”

“Brown has had a lot of influence in the Providence public school system in terms of the state takeover and a variety of other operations,” Sandoval said. Fifteen years ago, the University established the Fund for the Education of Children in Providence, set to be a $10 million endowment, which the University failed to fulfill in full until summer 2020, she said. 

But, “they’re only releasing about $500,000 each year to the schools, and it’s still a very small amount,” Sandoval said. These funds can also only be used for “proposed projects” that require committee approval.  A direct tax through the bill, she explained, “would improve the district overall” by helping them with expenses that they need and setting a term “for a long term commitment to the schools rather than one-off projects.”

HOPE and SEE put out a letter in support of the two bills.

“Legislative efforts such as these tend to overlook that Brown provides extensive contributions to the community we call home in significant areas that meet public need and offset the need for greater public resources,” Clark wrote. The University impacts the community through several student volunteering initiatives in public schools, health clinics and other services, according to Clark.

“This is in addition to the millions of dollars in voluntary payments to Providence annually, the taxes Brown pays on all commercial properties and our role as top employer, employing 4,700 local residents,” Clark added. “We also inject more than $200 million in research spending into the local economy each year and continue to play a transformative role in the Jewelry District, having invested more than $225 million to bring new economic vitality to that area of the city.”

These bills are just the start of reaffirming the commitment that Brown needs to have to the surrounding community, Sandoval said. “I think University accountability is a continual ongoing process that needs to be a commitment and an obligation to the community surrounding it and also the community within it.” 



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