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Skyrocketing rents drive stabilization proposal

Activists, community members, officials reflect on highest-in-the-nation rent increases


Dramatic rent increases in Providence are leading tenant activists and local elected officials to demand the city intervene with a rent stabilization policy. 

In January, the activist group Direct Action for Rights and Equality drafted a policy proposal advocating for rent stabilization. The proposal recommends that lawmakers cap annual rent increases at the lower of 4% or 75% of the yearly increase in the Consumer Price Index, an indicator used to track inflation.

Last year, rents rose an average of 7.5% in Providence — faster than any other city in the nation — and over double the national average of 3.2%.

Skyrocketing rents have driven many Providence residents to appeal to the local government for relief, according to City Councilor Miguel Sanchez. “It’s something that all of us (Council members) are hearing on a daily basis” from constituents, he said. Sanchez added that some residents are reporting annual increases as high as 20 or 25%, numbers which far exceed both wage growth and inflation. 


“I can definitely say that just (in the past four years) it has gotten dire, we are hearing about it on a more and more regular basis,” Sanchez added. 

For Naty Estrella, who has rented for over five years in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, rent increases have had major impacts on her life and community. “It has been very tough,” she wrote in a message to The Herald. “I had to cut out a lot of activities we used to do as a family … I’ve seen people moving out that have lived around me since I’ve lived in this neighborhood.”

Michael Ziegler GS, the political director of the Graduate Labor Organization, said that rent consumes the “lion’s share” of expenses for many graduate students at Brown. According to Ziegler, it’s common for graduate students to spend about half of a paycheck on rent. He expects GLO to support the rent stabilization ordinance once it is introduced to the City Council.

Clare Kearns GS was forced to move out of her East Side apartment to Pawtucket this year after her landlord increased her rent more than 50% over two years. 

Kearns supports rent stabilization. “I think affordable housing is and should be a human right, and I’m supportive of any and all efforts to make more affordable housing for folks who don’t earn as much money, (including) graduate students and many other Brown workers,” she said. 

According to Kinverly Dicupe, an organizer for Direct Action For Rights And Equality’s tenant housing association committee, the worsening conditions in the city led DARE to launch its rent stabilization campaign last month. “There are very few people that I know that are capable of affording (Providence’s rents) on one salary,” she said. “Everyone that I know of, whether in activism or not, is either living with roommates or living with family.”  

One central issue behind the increases, Dicupe said, is the lack of available housing. In 2021, the state’s housing production rate per 1,000 residents was the lowest in the United States, according to a September 2023 presentation by Stefan Pryor, the state’s secretary of housing.

In Dicupe’s view, the lack of restrictions placed on landlords is also a significant driver of rent increases. For people who have the capital to purchase homes and apartments in Providence, “it’s free money,” she said. “You can just continually raise … the rent.”

Sanchez, who strongly supports a rent stabilization ordinance, said that while “DARE’s proposal is a good starting point,” it will need to be vetted by the Council’s policy team. “By the time it gets introduced (to the Council) it will look slightly different,” he said. He expects the proposal to hit the Council’s docket later this year.

“With how dire the crisis is, it would, in my opinion, be very irresponsible to not bring a rent stabilization bill through the public process,” Sanchez said.  


Rent stabilization advocates say that the policy, while an important step in protecting Providence renters, is just one part of the solution.

According to Ziegler, the ordinance would have to be paired with other policies that increase the supply of housing in the city. “This isn’t just a matter of municipal government,” he said. “To increase housing supply, we’d need help from the state.”

Sanchez said the City Council is considering a number of longer-term solutions to the housing crisis. A proposed abolition of single-family zoning in the city is expected to reach the Council’s docket in a few weeks, and the body is looking to reconsider commercial property taxes that have “pushed away or stopped bigger housing developments in the past,” Sanchez said.

But Mayor Brett Smiley has consistently opposed rent control policies even before he was elected mayor, according to reporting from the Providence Journal. “While Mayor Smiley is deeply concerned about the cost of rent in Providence, rent stabilization has proven to be an ineffective policy in other communities,” wrote Josh Estrella, the press secretary for the Smiley administration, in an email to The Herald.

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Rent stabilization “does not control property costs, arbitrarily picks winners and losers, and often leads to unintended consequences such as reduced investments in property maintenance,” Josh Estrella added. Instead of pursuing rent stabilization, the administration has focused on working “aggressively to invest in and incentivize long-term affordable housing solutions and supported the development of housing options at every price point.”

Estrella wrote that the administration has invested heavily in housing rehabilitation, eviction defense and has “moved forward with important policy changes like strengthening our code enforcement practices and streamlining development processes.” 

Given the mayor’s opposition, the Council would need a veto-proof 10-vote majority to make rent stabilization law, Sanchez said. 

Neil Thakral, assistant professor of economics and international and public affairs who specializes in housing policy, addressed the administration’s economic arguments in an email to The Herald. He wrote that rent control policies in other cities have failed to appropriately target their benefits to those in need, and have reduced “the supply of available rental housing … (causing) an increase in average rental prices.”

Thakral wrote that policies supported by economists that would take effect quickly include rental assistance for low-income households, easing Rhode Island’s unusually strict residential land use regulations and imposing a vacancy tax on unoccupied residences in the state.

But for Naty Estrella, rent stabilization can be transformative. “I believe that it can significantly help so many families that are either cutting it close or are soon to be evicted for being late or nonpayment,” she wrote. “I can get back to having these outdoor outings with my family and save up some money for a rainy day.”

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