Superman Can’t Save Us protest targets State’s use of taxpayer funds for luxury housing
“We are here to protest the proposed plans for the Superman Building,” said organizer and activist Terri Wright of DARE in Burnside Park across from the building in question. “Superman won’t save us is the theme. And it’s the truth… We advocated for housing trust funds because of the housing shortage and what happens? They fund the Superman Building with it, to build luxury apartments. Luxury apartments that we can’t afford! So they can use our money, but they can’t house us.”
Wright’s protest drew together anti-gentrification and low-income housing advocates, community members experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity, and grassroots organizations including Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) and the Tenants Network on Thursday evening to challenge the deal to fund the restoration of the iconic Industrial National Bank Building, known colloquially as the Superman Building, with taxpayer dollars.
The owners of the Superman Building, High Rock Development LLC, have been allocated over $20 million in public funds for development of the building, including $10 million from the city’s Housing Trust Fund, intended to fund housing for the lowest income residents, and $5 million from a “municipal grant.” The city council is also debating a 30-year tax stabilization agreement for the project.
In addition, the state’s Commerce Corporation and Rhode Island Housing have committed more than $20 million to the project, with only 20% of units proposed as affordable to households making 80-120% of Area Median Income ($54,150 – $81,220 annually for an individual).
Though the developers and state elected leaders claim that the restoration includes affordable housing, in truth the housing is not affordable to most Rhode Islanders. The protest was organized to challenge the state’s support for luxury housing developments during a statewide crisis of rental inflation, low-income housing shortage, and homelessness.
The protest came with two demands:
- The city must require 30% of the units in the new building to be permanently affordable to low-income Providence households (with incomes at 30% of the Area Median Income – $20,300/year for an individual and $29,000/year for a four person household). Over 14,000 Providence renter households are cost-burdened, representing roughly 30% of the city’s households.
- The city must pass a rent stabilization ordinance, which would limit rent increases on the majority of the city’s private market units to a small percentage, once per year, establish a rent board to mediate landlord-tenant disputes and publicize city-wide rent data, provide for universal year long leases, as well as other measures to stabilize the city’s renter households.
At the protest, Wright went on to list the elected officials and organizations responsible for taking money from affordable housing to be used for luxury apartments, including Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, Providence City Council President John Igliozzi, Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee, Commerce Secretary Elizabeth Tanner, City Councilmembers John Goncalves (Ward 1), James Taylor (Ward 8) and Mary Kay Harris (Ward 11), the Rhode Island Foundation, the Providence Redevelopment Agency, and Rhode Island Housing.
“We are in a housing crisis,” said Wright, “but coming together and showing what community looks like, will.”
“We need to learn how to help one another and stand up for one another,” said DARE board member Brenda Taylor, a members of DARE’s Tenants and Homeowners Association. “When you see your brother down, he’s sleeping in the streets, I can help by some means to do something…
“The state is giving up $26 million for the Superman Building. The city is giving another $15 million. This is money that we, as people, have paid in taxes…”
“If the state wants to ‘breathe life back into this city’ then those tax credits need to be directed towards infrastructure that will support those that need it,” said Kendra, a member of the Tenant and Homeowners Association, noting the amount of tax credits the owners of the Superman Building have received.
“We need to make sure we’re having minority contractors on that building. We need to make sure that the workforce is diverse, and we need to make sure that everybody has the opportunity for quality of life,” said Anita Bruno, and activist for equity in the workforce.
“A couple of weeks ago, at Southside Cultural Center, I had a conversation with the Governor [Dan McKee],” said Terri Wright. “I handed him an opportunity to come and hear the voices of the community around the proposed plans for the Superman Building. And what the Governor said to me was, ‘It wasn’t me.’
“He put his hands up and said, ‘It wasn’t me’ then stepped back and said, ‘I had nothing to do with it.’
“We have about 400 people, counted, that are forced to sleep outdoors,” continued Wright. “Families. And the real kicker is, tent cities are illegal. Encampments are illegal. Sleeping on a city sidewalk is illegal, so where do the go? When the cops come along and say, ‘Get up’ where do they go?
“If you cannot provide a place for someone who is homeless, you have no right telling them to get up.”
“Before the epidemic even started, Rhode Island was already in a housing crisis, with the highest eviction rate in New England,” said Christian, an organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation. “Since the pandemic, the crisis has only gotten worse.”
“Because I was unable to get housing I stayed in an unsafe, abusive relationship for the fear of living on the street and not being able to take care of myself,” said Raquel Baker, and organizer with the Free Her Campaign and DARE’s Behind the Walls Campaign. Homeless since 2013, Baker advocated at the State House for monies to be allocated for housing. “It feels like all my tears and advocating was walked all over and forgotten.
“Housing is a crucial part for people getting out of jail or out of abusive relationships,” said Baker, “because without it we’re lift going back to the same situation we just came from.”
Everette Pope, member of the Tenants and Homeowners Association presented a poem.
“At Tenant Network we hear from tenants with horror stories like slum conditions, refused repairs, stolen security deposits and illegal harassment of tenants,” said Olivia, an organizer from the the Tenant Network. “Increasingly we are hearing stories of tenants being evicted because their landlords want to raise the rent. As every renter know, we are often one crisis, hospital visit, or paycheck away from homelessness.
“Just because we don’t own our homes, that doesn’t mean we are powerless. We have each other. We can build tenant unions to hold slumlords accountable, sowing the seeds for a world without rent and landlords.”
“If you are facing an eviction we have Rhode Island Legal Services and Center for Justice lawyers at DARE on Tuesdays,” said Terri Wright. “Get there at 6:15pm if you want to speak with a lawyer. No more waiting in line. Come to DARE on Tuesdays.”
“Here’s what rent stabilization can do for you,” said Wright. “It limits rent increases to a certain percentage each year based on the cost of living so you will not be priced out and homeless. Rent stabilization also creates a rent board with tenants and landlords who can resolve disputes. Every dispute shouldn’t end up in court.”
After the speaking program the crowd marched the short distance from Burnside Park to the Providence City Hall where oversized eviction notices targeting Mayor Elorza; Bonnie Nickerson, Providence’s City Planning Director and Executive Director of the Providence Redevelopment Agency; and members of Rhode Island Housing.
From City Hall the crowd marched to the Superman Building on Fulton Street. There the crowd chanted and protested for about 20 minutes.