:: Trickle Down…
Shelter from the Bubble:
Low-income and affordable housing in Providence
by Ray Huling and Amy Stitely
Back in the nineties, underground comic book artist Robert Crumb traded a suitcase of sketchbooks for a house in the south of France— an impressive hunk of property for a few line drawings to buy. Crumb doesn’t rank as one of the great artists of the twentieth century, but certainly as a very good one, and he earned a house commensurate with his talent. Not so many of us have the chance for such elegant real estate transactions, because (1) our work doesn’t produce tradable goods; (2) even if it did, the market lacks housing equal to it.
So Mr. Crumb lucked out while the rest of us struggle to find affordable housing. The problem seems plain when drawn in broad strokes: we can’t afford decent places to live because of the real estate boom, because developers are greedy, and the rich reinforce their greed.
But the issue is far more complex for those Community Development Corporations (CDCs) who bear the burden of creating affordable housing on a large scale. About 15 years ago, government greatly reduced the number of programs available to private developers to build low-income housing, due, not surprisingly, to their abuse of such subsidies. Now, federal guidelines greatly restrict these funds, which causes private firms to balk at high costs and bureaucratic hurdles. This makes non-profit CDCs our best hope for relief in the current market.
Stop Wasting Abandoned Property (SWAP) and the West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation (WEHDC) are two local CDCs. Both have been supported by the Rhode Island office of Local Initiatives Support Corporation (RI LISC) in their efforts. LISC is a national, non-governmental organization that supports neighborhood revitalization and housing development, primarily by providing low-cost capital and technical training to CDCs and other community organizations. All three have successfully established (or facilitated) low-income and affordable housing in Providence (RI LISC statewide). They work on a large scale, leveraging a bewildering number of resources to do so. To revive an old-fashioned phrase, these organizations battle urban blight— a constellation of economic and social problems, and they have to innovate and improvise throughout this process.
Let’s clarify the struggle. It no longer refers only to the cause of the poor. Crosswalk interviewed the directors of RI LISC, SWAP, and WEHDC, Barbara Fields, Carla DeStefano, and Sharon Conard-Wells, respectively, and each stressed that the low-income category doesn’t cover their whole constituency. Residents earning just above and even well above this level cannot currently afford quality housing. This changes the nature of their mission. Not only must they revitalize impoverished neighborhoods, they must also maintain affordability in rising ones. CDCs must guide local development toward its best growth in a system that has few central controls and can change wildly in only a few years. A daunting prospect involving huge sums: RI LISC alone has invested $157 million here over the past 15 years.
What, then, does, say, $9 million buy, when put into a CDC project? 15 properties rehabilitated into 37 rental and 21 homeownership family units—SWAP’s Potters Avenue Revitalization Project. An infill or scattered-site project, Potters consists of refurbished early 20th century homes spread throughout a two-block expanse in Lower South Providence. SWAP prioritized low-income, single-mother households in Potters, yet the diffused aspect of the project prevents economic segregation and increases growth. Similarly, the mix of rented and owned units brings in residents of varying wealth, all of whom want a clean, safe, and thriving neighborhood. One cannot imagine such a multi-faceted plan surviving the regard of a private developer.
The project took years to accomplish. The area suffered from disinvestment and its concomitant ills: dilapidated buildings and high crime rates. Surrounded by neighborhoods themselves in need of revitalization, Potters remained an untenable project for some time. SWAP patiently bought property there, while developing two outlying areas. Only after this foundation was established, could they begin work on the much worse-off Potters Ave. area.
Imagine, not only the foresight, but the forebearance, to hold fire in this way. People committed crimes while SWAP worked elsewhere; buildings rotted. Yet, this reveals the true character of the housing problem: it’s both a cause and an effect of other problems. This is neither paradoxical, nor unexpected. In order to overcome the economic inertia that keeps a neighborhood poor, one has to deal with all of its factors—and these can change roles along the way.
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