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Segregation, gentrification and the fight for Senate District 5



They are finally going to fix the 6-10 connector. When it came up in a conversation between me and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, he mentioned that the city wasn’t able to convince them to include money to reconnect Federal Hill and Olneyville. We talked a little about how local needs are sometimes in direct conflict with state and/or federal objectives. The balance between local and state needs is central to the job of a state legislator. It’s important for voters to know how a candidate for state senator is going to handle this balance. Affordable housing policy is the simplest and most urgent example of a direct conflict between state and local interests. The housing needs in Providence are extremely different than most other towns in the state.

There is a housing crisis in Providence, and it’s not like 20+ acres of land is going to pop up in the middle of the city to help solve it (it’s a joke)(more on this later). Providence has some of the lowest vacancy rates in the country and that has put upward pressure on rents around the city. Providence has one of the highest percentage of renters in the state and Black and Hispanic residents have disproportionately low home ownership rates. Black families in the district have a median income of 19.8k and Hispanic families have a median income of 23.2k, which means at least 50 percent of those families don’t have incomes that are even close to affording the appropriate housing. The waiting list for federal housing vouchers is thousands of people long and usually takes around 10 years to get placement.

Rhode Island has a housing shortage, but for most of the state it is not a crisis. This is why the people of Senate District 5 need someone that understands the needs of their district and how they differ from the policy agenda of the governor’s office. Governor Gina Raimondo and her economic advisers seem to have had tunnel vision on attracting out of state businesses to the state by subsidizing those businesses with taxpayer dollars. This strategy has led to some missteps such as giving large tax incentives to an existing in state business’ biggest competitor. According to a report by The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the data seems to indicate investing in businesses that are already in the state drives more job creation than jobs that relocate in state. The administration seems more focused on generating headlines than actually solving the problems of its residents.

This strategy is also largely ignoring the housing crisis in the city. The opening of the I-195 land is the largest economic development opportunity in recent history, and is being used to try to attract out of state businesses. Unfortunately, the 195 Commission and the administration by extension have no intention of addressing the housing crisis in the city (beyond building more luxury apartments.)  It is telling that there doesn’t seem to be a single Providence native or person of color on the commission. They are either unaware or ignoring the fact that Providence has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the country. Income inequality is sometimes a symptom of having a housing stock that middle class families can’t afford. The Commission (and by extension the administration) insist on only zoning for and building commercial or mixed use properties on that land. According to a market analysis by MG Commercial “a substantial segment of the downtown market has gone from available ‘B’ office space to a conversion to residential space and off the market.” In short, the housing crisis is the main driver of the shortage of office space in Providence. Building more affordable housing could kill two birds with a single stone.

The plans of the Commission and this administration also clearly ignore the history of the land upon which I-195 was originally built. In the 1930’s, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a partner to the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), created “redlining” maps that were instrumental in making racial segregation a matter of policy. The FHA would also not guarantee loans to Black applicants in White communities regardless of credit worthiness. What crept up in the place of federally backed mortgages were rent-to-own schemes that charged usurious interest rates and did not allow borrowers to build equity. The relatively high cost of housing for Black people led slumlords to subdivide apartments and forced Black families to crowd into living spaces smaller than White families with similar incomes. The consequence was intense population density and “slum conditions.” Ironically, a lot of these same strategies are presented as part of then-candidate Raimondo’s Affordable Housing and Homelessness proposal, which reads like a segregationist playbook. It was under the guise of slum clearing that the land was taken from the residents to build the federal highway system. Former United States Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx detailed the history of these kinds of projects in a talk that he gave at The Center for American Progress.

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Here is the redlining Map of Providence from 1935:

Notice that the old I-195 was routed through the more southern, L-shaped of the two red sections of the map (red indicated that the neighborhood was almost entirely Black.) That neighborhood, Fox Point, was purposely segregated as a matter of federal, state and local policies. Many of the people that were displaced are still alive, and the story of the people and the neighborhood is beautifully documented by former resident Dr Claire Andrade-Watkins in her documentary “Some Kind Of Funny Porto Rican?” The irony is not lost on me that the state took homes from people of color to build a highway, only to remove the highway and ignore the housing needs of those same families decades later. It’s either neglectful ignorance or willful neglect, and I’m not sure which is worse.

This is why I am afraid that one of the administration’s economic advisors is running for a state senate seat. This is someone who has admitted in his own writing that they don’t have a long history of relationships with the type of people that live in Senate District 5; someone whose own social media history clearly shows recent behavior that is, at the very least, insensitive to people of color. A person whose day job is putting the needs of corporations over the needs of the people of the district. I think that presumed candidate Sam Bell and this young man are both intelligent and accomplished, but I also feel that they are benefiting politically from a history of housing policies that have created this income inequality and racial segregation in Providence. They are not running against any of the neighborhoods “alumni,” professionals of color and/or first generation college graduates who may be interested in running. The lingering effects of the policies have priced many of those people out of Providence.

My challenge to anyone that is running:

  • Make it clear how you plan to address the needs of your constituents.
  • Explain how you plan to balance what is good for the state with what is good for the district.
  • Finally, display some awareness of the legacy of racial bias that has helped create these issues.

Until then, I can not accept that either candidate is any better of a fit for that seat than the incumbent, and I’m willing to bet many of the constituents of Senate District 5 feel the same way.

Cristian was born in Providence in the aftermath of the blizzard. He was raised to be an activist and a rabble rouser. He’s a Providence Public Schools and CCRI alum. He’s lived his life in different places, but his heart never left South Side.