The proposed Hope Point Tower has captured the radical imaginations of PVD residents, but the issue has, in fact, overshadowed a long-brewing crisis within the city limits. At 46 stories tall, supporters of it boast it will be the tallest highrise of its kind in New England, with floors of shopping, dining and luxury housing. In practice, the tower functions as a profane spectacle, a colossal distraction, and reveals the inner contradictions of life and power in the Renaissance City.
“Rent has gone up 9% in the past five years,” says Malchus Mills, labor activist, tenant leader and vice-chairperson of Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), one of PVD’s political advocacy groups for marginalized communities, struggling families and many others. “Sixty percent of Providence renters are cost-burdened. They pay more than 30% of their income on housing costs.” Eighty percent of Providence’s low-income households are cost-burdened. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,200 a month. A household would need to make $48,000 on average every year to be able to afford it. The median income in Providence is $30,000.
Malchus is from Delaware, and came to RI by way of the United States Navy. He rented in Silver Lake, until some women from DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality) informed him the house had been foreclosed on, something Malchus’ landlord had neglected to tell him. That was his introduction into the organization. Malchus now is part of the Tenants and Homeowners’ Association, DARE’s campaign for housing and tenant rights.
The decades-old DARE stands up for marginalized communities, immigrants (both documented and not), persons of color and struggling families, among others. The organization was instrumental in passing legislation that banned the box (asking job applicants if they’d ever been convicted of a crime on job applications) and got a just cause law passed in 2014 that prevents no-fault evictions when the bank foreclosures on a house or apartment building. Malchus was a significant force on Smith Hill in getting it passed.
Ramona G. has lived in Providence for more than 20 years. A model tenant who always pays her rent on time, she’s lived off Broad Street for almost a decade. The building is on its third landlord since Ramona’s been there, and her experience with them has varied. “I feel like the first landlord really cared,” she says in a phone interview. Landlord Number One eventually sold and she had to deal with Landlord Number Two. Number Two got the building foreclosed on by the bank, and Ramona wasn’t informed until seven months later. She paid her rent the entire time, too. Last year the building got another landlord, Number Three. And the difference is startling. “They don’t care if children are suffering,” she said about him. “They just want their rent on time.” Ramona recently learned her daughter has been exposed to lead, and she’s being monitored for it. Renters like Ramona don’t have control as tenants, and frequently fear retaliation. She’s seen her rent go up almost every year. Moving isn’t an option; rent anywhere else in the city just isn’t affordable.
Ramona’s situation isn’t an isolated case, and is emblematic of the daily struggles of renters in Providence. Landlords have money, lawyers and the power of eviction. Renters lack the resources to stand up for their rights. DARE advocates for them and seeks solutions on their behalf. They want rent hikes tied to the Consumer Price Index, and hope to establish a nine-person Rent Board in Providence to oversee tenant-landlord disputes that would be made up of city officials who aren’t landlords, landlords, and most importantly, tenants. The Rent Board would keep landlords regulated and prevent them from being negligent, and would be legally unofficial, meaning it would help tenants avoid housing court, where they frequently lack legal representation. “We believe housing is a fundamental human right, not a commodity,” says Malchus. “Nine times out of 10 we get calls and clients that come in and say, ‘I’ve been without electric for two months,’ or ‘The landlord is taking his time about fixing my boiler and it’s November.’”
According to a poll released last month from Roger Williams University and WPRI, most voters think housing is a critical issue. Matt Brown is challenging Governor Gina Raimondo in the Democratic primary, and he’s the only one in that race who has spoken about it. “Nothing has been done about the challenges that people her are facing,” he says. “There’s not enough housing. We’re last in the country for number of new houses being built.” He wants to remove the red tape and tax the wealthiest persons and corporations to fund a housing boom that would build up the stock and lower the price.
“I’ll believe it when they start digging,” says Malchus when I asked him about Matt Brown’s policy promise. He’s ready for action. “We have plenty of promises, and we have programs, but nobody’s doing anything… It’s time for us to quit talking about it and starting doing something about it.
“We don’t have any housing stock here in Providence, and that’s what we need. For companies that come in and get the tax breaks to build all of these luxury homes and then give nothing to build affordable homes for the rest of the city, that’s just wrong.”