In the last episode of The Bruno Brief’s special series on housing and gentrification on the East Side of Providence, we dig into current efforts to address Brown’s property impact through taxation.
Drawing on the words of recent legislation and local experts, we explore Brown’s relationship with the broader Providence community in more recent years.
Subscribe to the podcast on Spotify or Apple Podcasts or listen via the RSS feed. Send tips and feedback for the next episode to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Bruno Brief is produced in partnership with WBRU.
Terri Wright (DARE)
(applause) Thank you. First I want to say, pass, not to skip consideration, but pass House bill 7813 and House bill 7956. (applause)
At the Rhode Island State House on April 7, a group of student and community organizers and three state legislators held a press conference to advocate for the passing of two House bills and one Senate bill. You just heard Terri Wright, an organizer for the group Direct Action for Rights and Equality. The bills that she wants passed would completely transform the way that large nonprofit institutions in Providence function in the community: Namely, they would be required to pay property and endowment taxes to the city.
You’re listening to The Bruno Brief. I’m Livi Burdette.
Over the many decades, many of the largest nonprofit institutions in our state, especially those in higher education and health care, have grown beyond their original scope.
That’s Tiara Mack ’16, a Rhode Island state senator. She argued that the amount that institutions like Brown have expanded their land holdings has overcome the amount that legislators had in mind when they first created tax exemptions for nonprofits back in the 19th century. According to The Boston Globe, 28% of Providence’s total land parcels are owned by the largest nonprofits in the city — that includes private hospitals and universities like Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design. Overall, 40% of Providence’s land is property tax exempt — that’s a lot compared with a much larger city like Boston, where 24% of property goes untaxed.
Nearly half of our city is owned by these tax-exempt institutions. 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. What we are proposing is legislation that's a cap on the amount of property owned by a nonprofit that can be considered exempt from property taxes.
The bill Mack is talking about is Senate bill 2600. It reads that Rhode Island may tax any and all property “that is not wholly and exclusively utilized for the purposes for which the nonprofits were incorporated, as set forth in their respective charters.” Brown currently pays $1.7 million a year in property taxes on its “non-mission driven” buildings — those that are just commercial. According to The Boston Globe, if Brown were not tax-exempt, it would owe the city $49 million a year in taxes.
So 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.
That’s David Morales MPA’19, a Rhode Island state representative. In his speech at the press conference, Morales emphasized that Providence public schools are dramatically underfunded and falling into disrepair, while Brown celebrated a 50% growth in its endowment last fall.
Brown University celebrated their record breaking endowment of $6.9 billion. That’s billion with a “B.”
Two Brown students, Gabe Mernoff and Carina Sandoval, helped organize the press conference. They think it’s extremely important that the revenue from bill 7813, which would impose a 2% tax on the endowments of private universities, will all go straight to the budgets of Providence Public Schools. Mernoff is the advocacy coordinator for the Brown student group Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere. He’s also an alum of Providence Public School District himself.
It's just kind of expected that like, the, like, little pieces of tile fall from the ceiling and that the infrastructure is terrible, and that there's lead so no one drinks from the water fountains and the food is hardly edible and you know, all these things all in a district where the you know, it's 90+% students of color, 90+% kids on, you know, free reduced lunch. You know, it’s just such an obvious and grotesque really — I don't know what better way to describe it — contrast between the incredible wealth and privilege of $6.9 billion endowment here. And then 20 minutes away at the public schools, or even five minutes away in Hope High School, you know, it's just so many issues that need more resources.
Mernoff and Sandoval , who is head of community outreach for the group Students for Educational Equity, said that these proposed bills would represent an important first step in forcing Brown to make amends for the effects it’s had on the community.
I'm unsure if harm can fully be addressed in any capacity, just because of the extent that Brown has engaged in, you know, very oppressive systems that have just shaped the way that the country operates during this current day. But 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.
We outlined a bit of the history of Brown’s expansion in the first episode of this series, but here’s a little recap: At the turn of the 20th century, just under 700 undergraduate students were enrolled at Brown. By the year 2000, that number was almost 6,000. This meant that Brown took on massive building projects in order to house its quickly multiplying student body. They planned to tear down several blocks of historic homes to build these dorms, and in response, some of Brown’s neighbors formed the Providence Preservation Society in 1956. Here’s Brent Runyon, the current executive director of PPS.
PPS was formed for two reasons. One, that Brown was embarking on a second round of clearing and dorm building. They were planning to demolish another block of College Hill. I think that's really started and really, as a way to sort of arrest the impending change. And, of course, they were unsuccessful at stopping Brown. They did proceed with their second dorm building project.
That second dorm building project is Keeney Quad, where hundreds of first-year students now live. This kind of expansion continues today with the ongoing construction of new dorms on Brook Street and last year’s completion of the massive new Wellness Center.
In our opinion, Brown seems to forget that it exists in a historic neighborhood, or a group of neighborhoods, which are, we think, one of its biggest strengths. I think the great thing about Brown historically, is that it's been integrated into the neighborhoods. But the more they build and expand and build large buildings, which is all they build now, those do not integrate well into the neighborhood. And they're creating a defined line between campus and neighborhood. So I think that is to the detriment of Brown and the neighborhoods that surround it.
Runyon says it’s not always a bad thing that students live in these neighborhoods — they contribute a certain vitality to the area. But the University itself, he says:
They take no responsibility for it. And they're really good at spin. So it's unfortunate. I think, between preservation and Brown, you know, a lot of displacement has taken place, because it's the real estate market, it's more and more expensive. No one seems to be doing affordable housing, developmental College Hill. There's no rent control. There's no affordability.
How has the University responded to these claims about its negative effects on the housing market? Katy Pickens, who’s a Bruno Brief producer and Metro Editor for The Herald, spoke with Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey ’91 MA’06 and University Spokesperson Brian Clark about this.
So, they both described how the University is committed to being a good neighbor, and is striving to increase on-campus housing capacity in order to be thoughtful to residents around Brown’s campus. They also said that they were committed to historic preservation, and Clark told me that of Brown’s roughly 250 buildings, 135 of them are over 75 years old.
In regards to Brown’s property tax impact, Clark wrote this statement in an email to The Herald: “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.
“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.
“This is in addition to the millions of dollars in voluntary payments to Providence annually, the taxes Brown pays on all its commercial properties and our role as top employer, employing 4,700 local residents. 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.”
The effect that Brown and other large nonprofits have on housing and property values in Providence is even more impactful considering the broader state of housing in the city at large.
Katy, you interviewed Peter Asen, who’s a deputy director of the Providence Housing Authority. What did he have to say about the state of housing in Providence today?
So, he described a housing market that is just completely saturated at the moment. There simply is not enough housing for the number of people who need it in Rhode Island. The waitlists can last for years at a time, and oftentimes there’s a line in front of the Providence Housing Authority to even get on the waitlist to get housing.
We have a very, very low vacancy rate for apartments in the city of Providence. The last, I don’t know for certain, but last I knew, I think it was around 2%. Which is definitely lower than a healthy rental market, in the sense that it’s very challenging for anyone who’s a tenant. You know, it just puts landlords in a really strong position to increase rents and be very choosy about who they rent to and things like that.
Providence is suffering from a major lack of what Asen calls “naturally occurring affordable housing,” which is housing that — at its market rate — is affordable enough for everyday people to rent. Now in Providence, even in neighborhoods that not so long ago would have been considered lower income neighborhoods, rents are no longer affordable. On the East Side, Asen says that Brown has been a driver of these rising rent prices.
I think that a lot of people have argued historically that by not providing the amount of housing to undergrads and even potentially grad students that is needed, that it has helped to drive up the costs in those areas, because for landlords they can rent by the room to students and make more money that way.
Ultimately, though, Asen says that
Brown is always going to be primarily focused on doing what’s best for itself. The other piece, I guess you could say, is the expansion, the growth of not just Brown, but the hospitals and universities in general, it’s taken so much city land off the tax rolls.
The University does make an effort to give back to its community. In 2021, Brown made the first payout from a $10 million endowment fund allocated toward supporting Providence Public Schools, totalling almost $500,000. Brown employs over 1,400 Providence residents. And it makes voluntary property payments of several million dollars to the city each year. But for supporters of the bills to impose taxes on nonprofit institutions, it’s not been enough.
We are sending a clear message to every private university worth hundreds of millions of dollars that feel-good philanthropy and charitable giving does not make up for the gentrification, for the displacement and the lost tax revenue that has hurt working people for decades. Now's the time that we finally establish standards of accountability to require fair investments toward our communities.
That’s it for this episode of The Bruno Brief, and for this special series on housing and gentrification. This episode was produced by Katy Pickens, Jacob Smollen, Finn Kirkpatrick and me, Livi Burdette. If you like what you hear, subscribe to The Bruno Brief wherever you get your podcasts and leave a review! Thanks so much for listening, we’ll see you in the fall for a new season of The Bruno Brief.
Borough by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)
Our Only Lark by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)
Palms Down by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)
Quarry Clouds by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)
Um Pepino by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)
Hermes Gray by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)