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Editorial & Opinion

Sam Bell: Just say no to subsidizing luxury housing



Special tax deals for politically connected developers are a big part of Providence’s fiscal problems. The $18 million TSA for the Edge College Hill 2.0 luxury housing development that the Council is considering tonight is just another example of how these deals keep getting crazier and crazier. When we have such a crisis of affordable housing, why do we need to subsidize high-end housing in an already wealthy, overwhelmingly white, neighborhood?

Also, and I think this does matter, the design is really awful.

Shlock development does undermine our city. Because of the pedestrian-focused elements, I don’t think this design is quite bad enough that the project should be opposed on principle, but it is a valid concern.

I understand why many reform advocates like DARE push for compromise concessions, but I personally feel like we need to go further and just say no.

Even with a few affordable units, this project would still not deserve this insane level of public subsidies. Subsidies should go directly towards building affordable housing. We can achieve inclusionary zoning by direct ordinance, not as a compromise attached to public subsidy. This is not a radical position. Quite conservative towns in our state (like, say, Lincoln) have inclusionary zoning ordinances on the books.

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TSAs for luxury housing are just not a good idea. I don’t even think they’re a good idea for affordable housing–TIFs are just a much more efficient way to do the subsidies, and using the TSA model wastes public money.

The key of a TIF is that the upfront investment allows a focus on public infrastructure, placemaking, historical preservation, and environmental cleanup. These kind of expenditures are upfront and require some sort of TIF model. Even when the cash is given in direct subsidies (which is only a good idea when there’s something we should be subsidizing, like affordable housing or renewable energy), the upfront cash is more useful. When it’s allowed, developers often sell TSA-style credits at far less than face value on the markets.

This is why I will be introducing legislation to ban all TSAs from our state. Time for us to build a culture of real economic development at the municipal level, built around the TIF model that has worked so much better in other states.

See: 20-year, $18 million tax break for luxury downtown apartments under fire ahead of Providence City Council vote


Sam Bell is a Democratic member of the Rhode Island Senate. His district contains the Providence neighborhoods of Mt. Pleasant, Federal Hill, Olneyville, Cathedral Square, Regency Plaza, and Manton Heights, along with most of Hartford Park, a small portion of Elmhurst, and the northern portion of the West End around Dexter Park.