Providence Mayor Brett Smiley has proposed reallocating $20 million of remaining federal American Rescue Plan Act money to housing and other local priorities. The proposal was reviewed and approved by the Providence City Council Thursday, though the amendments will need to pass the council again to go into effect.
ARPA, a COVID-19 era federal stimulus package signed into law by President Joe Biden, distributed hundreds of billions of dollars to local governments. Through a combination of city and county funds, Providence was allocated a total of $166 million.
About $81 million of that funding has already been spent, according to Patricia Socarras, Smiley’s communications director. Of the roughly $85 million remaining, $64 million has already been allocated toward a specific project or program. The remaining nearly $20 million is the focus of the Smiley administration’s reallocation proposal.
The amended ordinances still work within the framework developed by the previous administration, which assembled a COVID-19 Recovery and Resiliency Task Force that met with community members to understand areas of greatest need in Providence, Socarras said. The task force ultimately recommended that the money go to several key areas, spending the most on city services, housing and homelessness, youth and community investments and racial equity.
During a City Council Committee on Finance meeting, Providence Chief Operating Officer Courtney Hawkins said that the goal of the revisions was to invest in “that will have a longer life for the city and are more foundational to the broader goals we’re trying to achieve.”
“It’s not about good or bad necessarily, but about maximizing this one-time funding to try to achieve some bigger goals,” Hawkins said.
Funding to address the housing crisis
The proposal includes a large increase in funding for the Providence Redevelopment Agency Housing Trust, which funds affordable housing for low-income families in Providence. The trust, which was already allocated over $17 million in the original ordinances, would receive an additional $10 million in funding in the updated proposal.
The proposed change aims to tackle Providence's ongoing housing crisis. In recent years, Providence has grappled with a severe shortage of affordable housing, escalating rent prices and a growing number of residents experiencing homelessness.
According to Socarras, another proposed $2.77 million funding increase for emergency housing solutions is expected to go towards the extension or creation of shelter beds — a pressing priority as winter approaches.
Rapid rehousing programs would lose $2.77 million under the new proposal. According to Socarras, the goal of this reallocation is to consolidate the city’s budget so that programs aren’t “coming out of several pots of money” and to avoid expanding emergency housing at the expense of rehousing.
Brenda Clement, director of HousingWorks RI, told The Herald that she was happy to see more money being allocated towards housing.
“We’ve been underbuilding since the mid-1980s, so we’ve got a lot of catch-up to do and plenty of opportunities to invest,” she said.
But Clement noted that while housing agencies in Providence welcome the money, it still takes several years to get projects online. “It’s not an immediate solution to our shortage of winter beds,” she added.
The other largest proposed reallocation is a nearly $10 million cut to funding for Downtown Open Spaces. This money was intended for a Kennedy Plaza redesign, but because the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority is currently in conversations about moving the bus hub to Dorrance Street, “we don’t think that it’s necessarily wise to invest all this money and change in Kennedy Plaza,” Socarras said.
Cristy Raposo Perry, director of communications and public outreach for Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, declined to comment. In August, the agency announced it had voted to engage in a private-public partnership for the creation of the hub.
According to Socarras, the redesign would have connected downtown and the Kennedy Plaza area with Waterplace Park via an elevated walkway. According to the Providence Journal, it also called to add a performance space and splash park, among other amenities.
While R.I. Transit Riders — an advocacy organization working to “preserve, expand and improve public transportation in Rhode Island” — appreciated some aspects of the Kennedy Plaza redesign they were not in favor of most of it, Co-coordinator Patricia Raub wrote in an email to The Herald.
“In our opinion, it was intended to transform Kennedy Plaza into a theme park catering to upper-middle-class tourists and residents,” Raub wrote. “The transit footprint would have been shrunk considerably, and the bus berths would have been located only at opposite ends of the square, making it difficult for riders to transfer from one bus line to another.”
“We think that Mayor Smiley was right to put this ill-conceived and very expensive plan on pause, if not abandon it altogether,” she added.
Other portions of the remaining ARPA funding would be dedicated to areas of need that have long existed in the city. Among the projects is $1 million for Cranston Street Armory investments. But the budget item is essentially just a placeholder, according to Socarras.
The armory, a historic building in Providence that was once home to the Rhode Island National Guard, has been mostly vacant since the 1990s. Various projects have proposed its renovation, including a proposed $55 million package to redevelop the building. As recently as May 2023, the armory served as a temporary site for emergency housing.
The Smiley administration hopes to assume ownership of the armory from the state on the condition that Rhode Island provides funding to cover years of deferred maintenance costs under state ownership.
The administration has also proposed a $1 million increase in parking meter replacement, which Socarras described as an urgent need since an estimated 25% of Providence’s parking meters are broken.
Other proposed investments focus on new or emerging issues since the pandemic.
Lessons about Providence’s capacity to provide food safely in emergency situations have led to a proposed $125,000 increase in food security grants, Socarras said.
The funds would be used as direct grants for food pantry programs in Providence, Kate MacDonald, director of communications for the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, wrote in an email to The Herald. The organization would not receive any of those funds, but its Providence-based member agencies could.
“Food pantries in Providence have recently seen a dramatic increase in the number of people needing food assistance,” Andrew Schiff, CEO of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank Andrew Schiff, wrote in a statement sent to The Herald.
“Additional funding from the city will be a welcomed support to the work of these highly trafficked pantries,” he added.
The proposed reallocation would also bolster right-to-counsel funding as part of the city’s eviction defense program. It would additionally invest in the resiliency of India Point to the tune of $3 million.
According to Socarras, the administration has prioritized shifting money away from programs that need continued funding in order to be effective and towards programs that can be highly effective with just one-time funding.
The Smiley administration’s long-term goal is to ensure that the ARPA money has the largest impact possible for years to come.
“When else is the city of Providence going to be able to get a large investment like this?” Socarras said. “How can we get the most bang for our buck?”
Yael is a senior staff writer covering city and state politics. She is junior, and hails from the Bay Area.