Less to Lean On, Part 4
This is the fourth and final part in a special series from Trending Globally exploring the housing crisis in the United States, and in Rhode Island in particular. The crisis has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but as we’ll show, it’s a problem that has been with us for much, much longer.
In this episode, we delve into Brown University's complicated relationship with the residential communities it touches. We explore the idea of housing not as a commodity but as a basic human right, and talk with people who are working to make that idea a reality. And we recommend ways that activists, politicians, and residents everywhere we can work toward equitably and affordably housing all Americans.
Contributors to this podcast include students from Brown University and the media collective Signs of Providence. You can learn more about their organization here.
Listen to Parts 1, 2, 3, and the series epilogue.
You can learn more about the Watson Institute's other podcasts here.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: On a winter night not long ago, I sat on a bench with Dave in Kennedy Plaza, Downtown Prominence's main public transportation hub. As we talked, the bitter cold began to seep up through the bench and into my bones. I could see the lights of Providence's east side a 10-minute walk over the Providence river, and up College Hill would return me to the Brown University campus and the warmth of my dorm room. But like thousands of Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness that night, Dave, whose full name I won't share for the sake of his privacy, would not be returning to a warm bed of his own. Instead, he would sleep outside, seeking refuge from the elements in a sleeping bag under a pavilion near the river.
That night, as the buses came and went, I sat with Dave as a nighttime outreach worker with Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere or HOPE. HOPE is a student-run homelessness direct service and advocacy organization at Brown. Dave told me of the many places that he had called home, but the east side was his first. He was born there, he said, pointing at the nearby College Hill at the top of which that Brown's campus. He'd lived amongst the Brown community. My University community, he said, until, quote, "they expanded and pushed us out."
How, Dave asked, did HOPE, a collection of Brown undergrads, reckon with the tremendous burden that students like us put on the Providence housing market? Did we think of our university's role in displacing the working class communities and communities of color that once existed at the edges of our campus? How, he asked, could we ever truly be a part of the solution to Rhode Island housing crisis when we were also a part of the problem?
SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. Today, we conclude our special four-part series, Less to Lean on. Back in April Twenty-Twenty, Trending Globally joined forces with the media collective signs of Providence to explore and reveal how the COVID-19 pandemic would affect Rhode Island's already-dire affordable housing and eviction crisis.
We've also worked alongside current and former Brown University undergraduates from HOPE like Nathaniel Pettit whom you just heard. Our many conversations with housing advocates, researchers, landlords, and residents point to an inescapable conclusion. This pandemic is not just a health emergency. This pandemic is a housing emergency.
SUBJECT 1: How are we going to face this thing?
SUBJECT 2: We need to acknowledge that housing is a human right.
SUBJECT 3 We have the capability of building new system.
SUBJECT 4: It's not about racism. It's about power. I mean, this is my home.
SUBJECT 5: Are we going to lose our house again?
SUBJECT 6: There's no other thing that we can do besides everything that we can.
SUBJECT 7: We're going to keep fighting.
SARAH BALDWIN: If you haven't listened to our earlier episodes, please do. We trust you'll see how we've come to that conclusion, but our conversations have also made something else clear. The roots of our nation's dysfunctional housing system extend back centuries.
Twenty-Twenty was a year of reckoning with the enduring legacy of racism and white supremacy, including in our housing system, but our investigation has revealed that this system is not broken. It is doing exactly what it was built to do, starting with the original dispossession of indigenous peoples by Europeans. The rules and norms surrounding property have been intentionally weaponized to enforce spacial segregation and economic disparity, in short, to determine who lives where and who owns what.
Now, we know we are presenting a problem so complex and far-reaching that no single effort can solve it. But one way to wrap our heads around it is to narrow our focus. So in this episode, we started at home and took a good long look at Brown University's complicated history with the communities it touches. Only then can we begin to imagine a more just, a more sane housing system, which is what we'll do later in this episode with help from pioneering housing justice organizer's, some of whom we've met in previous episodes and some of whom we can't wait to introduce.
Nathaniel's going to help me tell this story. For members of HOPE like him, being both an affordable housing advocate and a Brown student meant wrestling with some contradictions. Here he is again.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: When I arrived in Providence as a Brown first year in Twenty-Sixteen, I assumed, like most of my peers I think, that the East side had always been an enclave of wealth and whiteness in an otherwise predominantly low-income, non-white city. The streets adjacent to Brown project power and privilege like Benefit Street with its stately colonial era mansions and Wickenden street with its trendy coffee shops and hip boutiques. So I struggle to imagine Brown surrounded by anything but privilege.
SARAH BALDWIN: It was conversations with Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness like the one he had with Dave as a HOPE nighttime outreach worker that first challenged Nathaniel's assumptions. He spent much of his senior year in the University archives, digging into those assumptions for his public policy thesis.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: And the archives challenged every conception about the East side's past that I had carried with me for three years. A few short decades ago, working class communities, immigrant communities, and communities of color flourished next to Brown's campus. They offered some of Providence's most affordable housing opportunities, which served people of modest means like Dave's family.
In the neighborhoods to the North like Lippitt Hill and to the South like Fox Point, folks laid down their roots. In the process, they were creating safety nets and springboards for newly arrived immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities from the African archipelago of Cape Verde, and low income Rhode Islanders. Community scholars like Claire Andrade Watkins and Keith Stokes had been sharing these stories for years, but I hadn't heard or perhaps wasn't listening.
SARAH BALDWIN: Or maybe, Nathaniel, those histories were not the ones being written in textbooks and taught in schools. As Rhode Island historian Keith Stokes explained in episode two, in the mid-20th century, urban renewal, interstate highway construction, and a whitewashing historic preservation movement effectively erased these communities from the East side. But as Dave suggested, there was another force of community displacement at work, Brown University.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: Brown didn't displace underprivileged communities in ways that were as obvious or overt as its peer institutions like Columbia, the University of Chicago, and Penn in the nineteen-fifties and 60s. But our University did contribute to the dramatic restructuring of the East side's neighborhoods in harder to see ways.
INTERVIEWER 1: The SS Monteret arrives in New York Harbor with--
NATHANIEL PETTIT: For instance, after the Second World War, Brown began one of the largest construction programs ever undertaken by a University to build massive residential quadrangles for its growing post-war student body. Building these quadrangles, which we today call Wriston and Keeney Quads, inadvertently spurred the birth of the Providence preservation society. The PPS was led by members of the city's so-called first families who were, not surprisingly, all wealthy and white.
SARAH BALDWIN: As Brown revealed its plans to raise entire blocks, the PPS advocated for the preservation of homes it deemed historic. In doing so, it became one of Providence's foremost advocates for the mid-century craze of urban renewal. While it fought to preserve the grand colonial mansions typical of Providence's past, it also played an instrumental role in demolishing buildings at the East side's peripheries, buildings that considered blighted but that were, in fact, home to tight-knit, nonwhite working class communities.
INTERVIEWER 2: America, not so long ago, is a continent of wilderness and open space. Now, America is a land of mighty cities.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: It only got worse the University actively sought to expand its student population after the Second World War, and University leaders struggled to find enough beds to house them.
SARAH BALDWIN: As Nathaniel explains, over the two previous decades, Brown presidents Wriston and Keaney had made a colossal push to create the ideal residential college that would house every student. They had a rationale.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: Henry Wriston and Barnaby Keeney shared a deep belief that a student's residential experience could and should be an integral part of their overall liberal education. They believed the dormitories provided places for students of different backgrounds to exchange ideas and learn to live together and were, therefore, as important to Brown's particular approach to education as were classrooms. They even called dorms instruments of instruction, so they went to tremendous lengths to build a home for the liberal ideal, which was the name of my thesis, and strive to one day make all Brown undergrads live in on campus dormitories. But that approach changed radically in the nineteen-sixties
SARAH BALDWIN: That's when Brown adopted its now famous open curriculum. It's also when the shared ethos of the University and its largely white and wealthy student body became one of individuality, independence, and choice. Brown started giving huge numbers of students permission to live in privately-owned, off-campus houses on the East side. Those working class communities remained robust in character and yet fragile in the face of University expansion.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: In line with the plans of university administration, Brown students flocked to nearby neighborhoods like Fox Point. Their landlords were happy to rent to groups of mostly well-endowed students instead of longtime community members with more modest means. The Fox point neighborhood changed, and some residents no longer felt welcome. Many people sold to outsiders and left. In the nineteen-sixties alone, Brown's off-campus population grew by 300%.
SARAH BALDWIN: Almost immediately, Fox Point began to struggle under this new pressure. Community members demanded action from the University. Community leaders like Bernardino Delgado spoke out to the Providence Journal in Nineteen-Seventy.
BERNARDINO DELGADO: Fox Pointers are being forced to leave their community so that other interests can benefit.
SARAH BALDWIN: Another community leader Robert Clark had this to say.
ROBERT CLARK: Brown is tearing us to pieces when it comes to housing.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: What's remarkable is that for a brief moment, Brown leaders, under pressure from community and student activists, responded to these demands. The University actually pledged to slow the spread of off-campus students into Fox Point. What's more, Brown promised to build affordable housing for the community on a piece of land on Brook Street called the Bond Bread site. This was a brief acknowledgment on Brown's part of its responsibility for the loss of affordable units and, therefore, its duty to contribute to the community's now diminished affordable housing stock.
SARAH BALDWIN: But this moment faded quickly. In the early 70s, a new President, Donald Hornig, was more focused on addressing the university's crushing debt than on appeasing its neighbors. When he became president, Brown was 4.1 million in the red, and that's in nineteen-seventies dollars. To achieve solvency president Hornig believe that Brown needed more tuition dollars, which meant more students under Hornig and his successor, Howard Swearer.
Brown's student body would reach unprecedented numbers, and its dependence on off-campus student housing would increase in parallel. Today, Brown has nearly 7,000 undergraduates. More than a quarter of them live off-campus. Because of this studentification, neighborhoods like Fox Point have largely lost their multi-ethnic, multi-class character with rent around $800 for a two bedroom. They are now some of Providence's most expensive areas to rent in.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: I want to be clear. Brown was not the only force that restructured the site's demographics, but it was a major force, and it's clear from the archives that community leaders as well as students and faculty had told Brown that its newfound reliance on off-campus housing was changing the surroundings. And the records made clear that University leaders from presidents to trustees to top administrators believed what they were being told. Again and again, they were given opportunities to rein in Brown's massive contribution to neighborhood change. But again and again, they chose not to act.
I have often thought back to that night of outreach where my team and I talked to Dave. He asked us, how can you be a part of the solution to Rhode Island's housing crisis when, in some ways, you are also a part of the problem? That night, Dave taught my team and me an incredibly valuable lesson about housing in America. In a system that places profit over people, my housing stability too often comes at your expense. In other words, chances are my renting an apartment in Fox Point with my college friends makes it challenging, if not outright impossible for Dave to live in the neighborhood that he had once called home.
SARAH BALDWIN: In communities across the country, our housing system pits neighbor against neighbor. It creates winners and losers, largely along class and racial lines. Yes, in a capitalist society like ours, this can be said of countless resources. But housing is not just another commodity, and there have been crucial transformative moments in our nation's history that recognize this fact.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: In HOPE, we often talk about what it means to have a home. Homes are places where we nourish our bodies, our minds, and our souls. Our homes are the foundations upon which we build the rest of our lives. This research has me struggling with an uncomfortable truth. It is impossible to be a student at Brown without being tied up in this history that I've just laid out. As young Brown students, we live in the dorms of Wriston and Keeney quads, dorms that helped spur urban renewal on the East side.
And as older students, the vast majority of us move into off-campus apartments in neighborhoods like Fox Point, yet just a few short decades ago these apartments were the homes of working class families of color, many of them immigrants. That's the tragic truth. There's no way to be a Brown student without being complicit in this history, but here's the thing. This story of complicity with Brown and the East side, it's just a microcosm of the greater complicity that most of us share, whether we know it or not, in our unjust housing system.
MEGAN SMITH: There's this myth that eviction homelessness are the manifestation of a broken system, and I would argue that they are baked into the system intentionally.
SARAH BALDWIN: That's Megan Smith, a Brown alum and one of the founders of HOPE. Today, she's a social worker with the Rhode Island-based House of HOPE CDC and a grad student at Boston University.
MEGAN SMITH: When homelessness happens, when evictions happen, it's actually the system doing what it's designed to do, which is to oppress poor people and people of color for the benefit of the economic elite. And so I think if we start naming it as no, this is part of our system, and then going at it from that place of acknowledging, this is not-- we don't need tweaks. We need structural change. I think that's going to allow us to have a much more honest conversation on every level.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: At every level of housing in America from the local to state to federal levels but also on an institutional level, we have to interrogate how some of us benefit from the system while some of our neighbors are immeasurably harmed by it. It's hard work. I know. How do we ask our families, our communities, and ourselves to interrogate a system that we literally live in?
TARA RAGHUVEER: My first response is we have to understand why it's so deeply ingrained in the minds of some Americans that housing must be delivered by the private market and with a profit motive. The reason is they benefit from that.
SARAH BALDWIN: That's Tara Raghuveer, a pioneering housing justice organizer based in Kansas City, Missouri.
TARA RAGHUVEER: I'm the director of a Grassroots organization comprised of poor and working class tenants in Kansas City called KC Tenants, and I'm also the campaign director for a national campaign called the Homes Guarantee.
SARAH BALDWIN: Recently, Nathaniel sat down with Tara.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: I was so grateful for the chance to get to speak with Tara. She's in on the ground activist powerhouse working every day with one of the nation's most effective tenant unions. But she's also able to diagnose these central injustices of the housing system. She's able to underscore how the historical legacies of racist housing policies continue to manifest themselves in our modern day housing crisis. For Tara, if we're serious about breaking down these legacies of injustice, we have to think critically about elements of housing that many Americans take for granted.
TARA RAGHUVEER: If we are serious about thinking through reparations and how to account for the harm that's been done in this country, we have to interrogate things like the American idea of homeownership, the uniquely American idea of homeownership, which, by the way, has been shoved down our throats for the better part of the last 2 centuries. The idea that every American should and must own a home and that's the main vehicle for wealth building, let's be clear that that is a vehicle for wealth building that's been subsidized by the federal government for some. And by some, I mean white people.
The federal government wrote loans for white people to move to the suburbs and buy homes, and that wealth is still in the white community. This is a story of complicity among a group that includes tens of millions of people. Anyone who has a mortgage, anyone who owns a home is benefiting from a system that is oppressing other people.
SARAH BALDWIN: To Tara, it's hard for many of us even to imagine a housing system that puts people before profits because so many powerful institutions have deeply bought into the belief that housing must be commodified.
TARA RAGHUVEER: I think we have to start there by understanding that there are so many people and institutions, banks, politicians who benefit from the world as it is where housing is treated as a commodity. Housing is something for profit. Housing serves individual family and community, private interest persona. There's been a bipartisan, widely-spread, hugely successful campaign to transform housing from public good, from human right into commodity to the extent that our imaginations are completely stifled.
We actually can't imagine a world in Two Thousand and One in the United States where housing is guaranteed as a public good as opposed to commodified on a private market. People's brains break when we ask them to imagine what it looks like to have a home but not have to pay someone to have that home. We have to acknowledge that, and we have to commit ourselves to a project of undoing the false conclusion in people's minds across the country that housing can only be delivered that way.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: And that's where the Homes Guarantee campaign comes in. The Homes Guarantee campaign is a national campaign, a vision for a more just housing system in America, born from conversations with Grassroots housing leaders, including tenants of corporate landlords, on House people across the country, and residents of public housing who gathered in a retreat in upstate New York in the summer of Twenty-Eighteen. Tara, the campaign's national director, explains the home's guarantee this way.
TARA RAGHUVEER: The Homes Guarantee is a very simple idea. We live in the richest country in the history of the world. We can, and we must guarantee that everyone has a home-- period.
SARAH BALDWIN: We've already heard the phrase housing is a human right, but what does that actually look like?
TARA RAGHUVEER: What we came up with is what we like to call a non-radical but systemic vision for what housing could look like into the future. We want 12 million units of social housing, housing that's built off of the private market and not available for speculation. We want a massive reinvestment in existing public housing to make it sustainable and climate resilient for the future and to repair the damages of the last several decades of neglect.
We want a tenant's bill of rights that includes universal rent control, tenant's opportunity to purchase, good cause eviction protections, and importantly, crucially, we want reparations for the decades, the centuries of racial capitalism that have informed our housing and land policy in this country. That means land back for Native communities. That means wealth redistribution to the black communities that were cut out of wealth building opportunities in this country.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: For inspiration, Tara looks to Vienna, Austria, a city that has a centuries old commitment to social housing.
TARA RAGHUVEER: In Vienna, 2/3 of the city live in social homes. These are homes that are constructed and managed by the government, and they are gorgeous. Architects fight over the contracts for these buildings. People love living there. It's a deeply mixed income environment, which also allows for something that we call solidarity rents. There's a sliding scale, where people who are able to pay more and people who are less able pay less in the rent.
And the rent is really for the home. It's not for someone's profit margin. It's for maintaining the place where people live in community with one another, and this is the work of years and years of organizing among workers and tenants to ensure that they had this Homes Guarantee, this guarantee of stability and security and safety and health in their homes.
So that's a lot of concretely what we mean when we talk about a Homes Guarantee in the US. We need units of housing like that that are completely permanently off of the private market. They're not available for someone to speculate on to make a profit on.
SARAH BALDWIN: The vision of the Homes Guarantee is big, but to Tara, the work of realizing that vision is the work we need to be doing now.
TARA RAGHUVEER: We must start planting the seeds for a social housing program today. People in Congress are talking about infrastructure and economic recovery. The facts are, of course, this economy was not working for the majority of people before the pandemic. And now, it's completely failed the last 10 months. If not, the last 10 years are a story of complete and utter market failure. Let's stop trying to make a rotten system work.
SARAH BALDWIN: Thanks to people like Tara, the Homes Guarantee team, and KC Tenants. The tables are starting to turn. Their work offers us a powerful example of how the world could be, but in the midst of the pandemic, it's easy to feel that this vision is disconnected from how the world actually is.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: But that's what was so potent in my conversation with Tara. I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, which is a sort of Bible in the field of community organizing. Alinsky writes, quote, "that we accept the world as it is does not, in any sense, weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be."
SARAH BALDWIN: As we've said, to transform a system is hard, but even to reform it can feel achingly slow, not to mention inadequate. Progress on the housing front has rarely arrived as sweeping changes in our state. It can take years to get even modest reforms passed here.
RAY NEIRINCKX: I think the problem with a lot of housing legislation bills in the General Assembly has always been that the General Assembly is taking this position that we're going to remain, quote, "evenhanded."
SARAH BALDWIN: That's Ray Neirinckx. Ray has been the coordinator of the Office of Community Development and Office of Homeownership for the state of Rhode Island for the past 20 years.
RAY NEIRINCKX: And so legislation is introduced every year to modify the state plan tenant act. Some would argue to be more pro-tenant. Some would argue pro-landlord, and those bills never get passed because both sides accuse the others of getting preferential treatment. And so the General Assembly defaults to, well, we're just going to keep things as a status quo because neither side feels the law benefits them. So obviously, it must be working.
SARAH BALDWIN: But as Ray points out, that's not the only dynamic at work here. Many legislators are, in one way or another, invested in that status quo.
RAY NEIRINCKX: The General Assembly has a large number of representatives who are also attorneys and landlords, and so I think that is a factor that plays in this as well.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: It is easy to feel like we housing advocates have no business finding inspiration in the vision of the home's guarantee when we're advocating in a place like Rhode Island, whose legislators have such a strong preference for inaction. But my conversation with Tara made me feel otherwise.
TARA RAGHUVEER: What I've learned this month is that when you use power, you build power. When workers strike, they build power. When we take action in Kansas City, when we throw down to end evictions, we are not only ending evictions in a day. We're also building the power of our collective, and all of that contributes to this longer view of building tenant working class, poor people power in a place like Kansas City, Missouri in the middle of the Midwest.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: I have seen an amazing array of housing advocates diligently advocating a handful of measures that by all accounts are quite moderate. Take for instance source of income discrimination. During my time in Rhode Island, it was perfectly legal for landlords to flatly refuse to rent to people who use Federal Housing choice vouchers, commonly referred to as section eight vouchers.
SARAH BALDWIN: These vouchers, paid for by federal funds, are the primary form of subsidized housing in Rhode Island. A Twenty-Eighteen study conducted by Southcoast Fair Housing with assistance from HOPE students demonstrated that when combined with the sheer lack of affordable units, this source of income discrimination kept voucher holders from accessing over 93% of the state's daily online housing listings.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: That's shameful. So it was mind-numbingly frustrating to see legislation that would ban this discrimination introduced year after year at the State House, only to peter out in a House Subcommittee. But I look at this process differently after talking with Tara. With each year in using power to introduce the bill and lobby state legislators, our coalition built power and, sometimes, hard to see ways, but in ways that mattered nonetheless.
SARAH BALDWIN: And this power building has demonstrated results. City officials in Cranston, Rhode Island ended this form of discrimination in their municipality, and the Providence City Council recently passed legislation that would do the same in the state's capital.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: This is not to say that we, housing advocates, should only devote energy to moderate adjustments in policies that tweak the status quo. It is to say that we should see these systems reforms as power building endeavors that build and energize our coalition to truly transform housing in America. It's an encouragement to throw down, as Tara says, through direct actions and legislative advocacy, but to keep our eye on the true prize, systemic transformation, while doing so.
On the journey of producing Less to Lean on, we've talked with some of Rhode Island's most forward thinking housing advocates. Many of them have shared ideas for common sense reforms, and those reforms could have a real impact on the lives of marginally housed Rhode Islanders and build the power needed to bring about true transformation. One of the things that have become clear to us is that we've got to slow the creation of newly-homeless people. And for millions of Americans each year, homelessness starts with an eviction. If we want to get serious about addressing housing insecurity, we have to revamp the tools at our disposal to keep people in their homes. And so we offer common sense idea number one, a right to counsel in eviction cases.
JEN WOOD: Why are people homeless in the first place? And we begin to stop the flow of newly-created homeless people by creating a right to counsel, getting people good representation.
SARAH BALDWIN: That's Jen Wood again, the director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice. We met her in episode three. As Jen explained, one of the most effective ways that we can protect tenants from the fallout of eviction is by ensuring that they have quality legal representation.
JEN WOOD: There's a big difference between getting a flier and getting some advice and actually being represented by an attorney in your matter. If we can keep people in their housing, not disrupt their employment, not disrupt the children's schooling, not have all the adverse health consequences of being put out on the street, we can both serve the overall economy of the state and also greatly improve the lives of the tenants who manage to sustain themselves in stable housing.
SARAH BALDWIN: Jen pointed out that a right to counsel in housing cases actually saves local government's money. It's a smart economic investment. We know the CDC Moratorium on evictions that started in June of last year won't last forever. In fact, Princeton University's eviction lab reports that filings are already on the rise. When the moratorium lifts, we could be facing a tsunami of evictions.
More than 30 million people in this country are at risk of losing their homes right now. In Rhode Island alone, a US Census survey found that of the sample of 4,000 renters who are behind on rent and say it's likely they'll have to leave their house due to eviction in the next two months, all reported having lost income due to COVID-19. The overwhelming majority of them were Black and Latinx.
Here's common sense idea number two. Rhode Island should create a line item for safe and affordable housing in its annual budget. Brenda Clement, the direct of the housing research organization HousingWorks RI, sees a dedicated annual source of funding as a crucial step in the ocean state's ability to catch up to our neighbors.
BRENDA CLEMENT: Rhode Island, it has been one of the few states in the Northeast that does not have a regular dedicated funding stream towards housing. So we continue to rank last in New England and throughout most of the Northeast in our per capita investment in housing.
SARAH BALDWIN: To sociologist Eric Hirsch, there are no two ways about it. If Rhode Island wants to get serious about addressing its housing crisis, it has to commit the funds necessary to make a difference, not the occasional injection of funding like the $65 million Bond issue that just passed in Rhode Island.
ERIC HIRSCH: That is nothing, and that's a drop in the bucket when you're talking about housing construction. That's $5 per capita, whereas Connecticut and Massachusetts are investing $80 per capita, $100 per capita. Rhode Island is way, way behind in terms of public investment and housing.
SARAH BALDWIN: Increasing the supply of affordable housing is critical, but it won't be enough on its own. That's where common sense idea number three comes in-- rent stabilization, not rent control. That's when rent is kept at a specific amount. Rent stabilization is when increases are based on a set percentage.
MALCHUS MILLS: We're trying to level the playing field for tenants.
SARAH BALDWIN: That's Malchus Mills, vice chairperson of the Providence-based Direct Action for Rights and Equality or DARE. Malchus is an active member of DARE's tenants and the homeowners association. He's also a lead organizer in DARE's push to pass a city ordinance called rent stabilization and protection for tenants.
MALCHUS MILLS: What then rent stabilization do? It will limit rent increases to once per year and no more than 4% for the rise of the cost of living measured by the consumer price index.
SARAH BALDWIN: As Malchus explains, DARE's ordinance would allow landlords to increase rents after making substantial improvements to their properties. But it would otherwise limit how much rents can increase from year to year. That would help prevent those unexpected spikes in rents that can push renters from their longtime homes.
MALCHUS MILLS: The goal of rent stabilization is to preserve social and economic diversity, so by tenant with stable, affordable rent to maintain a variety of housing types and protect tenants from sudden and unjust rent hikes.
SARAH BALDWIN: DARE's ordinance would be a significant step toward realizing the home's guarantee vision here in Providence. The ordinance would make clear that no landlord's pursuit of profit can justify the uprooting of families that call the property home. Yes, changing how housing works comes with upfront costs, but that's the thing.
As we've shown, it costs our society less to house people than to deal with their homelessness. Committing to housing isn't just an investment in a voucher program or the brick and mortar of a new apartment building. It's an investment in the future of our communities. It's an investment in the future of our people.
What choices will we make as we emerge from the pandemic? Will we choose to rebuild better? Will we choose to envision a more sane and just housing system? Tara Raghuveer with the key tenants and homes guarantee campaign often talks about the politics of possibility.
TARA RAGHUVEER: The politics of possibility during COVID have completely shifted, right? The rules have all been rewritten, and it's an interesting and good check on us in the movement.
SARAH BALDWIN: Shifts in our collective circumstances, Tara says, create openings for action and new policies that may have seemed impossible until now.
TARA RAGHUVEER: The point is we live in a new world today. These crises aren't new, but they are newly urgent in a World on Fire, literally, and otherwise, and it's the challenge for organizers. To my challenge, it's the challenge of any organizer or leader across the country who believes in the promise of a better world to figure out how we get to that now with all of these new changes and shifts in terms of political possibility around us.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: Tara's words have been swirling in my head ever since we talked. By ensuring a right to counsel and housing cases, inserting a line item on the state budget and stabilizing rent, we can shift the politics of possibility for housing in Rhode Island.
SARAH BALDWIN: To bend the politics of possibility to work for housing in Rhode Island, we can't just look to the state House or city hall. We need to demand leadership and accountability from Rhode Island's most powerful institutions, institutions like Brown University.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: In writing my thesis, I often thought about how, as a member of the Brown community, I was reaping the benefits accumulated from the displacement of longtime insiders like Dave. How I lived in a Fox Point home that no doubt housed working class East Siders a few short decades ago, how my professors and peers lived on land like the former Bond Bread site that was promised by the University as affordable housing, a promise Brown failed to keep, I think about how the colonial charm of Brown's campus was a central asset that attracted me to attend the University and about how Brown acquired this charm in part by participating in processes of community dispossession.
SARAH BALDWIN: To study or teach at an institution like Brown, to live in a country like the United States is to inherit a wealth of resources and opportunities passed down from previous generations. These words come from slavery injustice, the trailblazing examination of Brown's involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, and a groundbreaking text in the field of institutional accountability. The report continues. Is it so unreasonable to suggest that in assuming the benefits of these historical legacies, we also assume some of the burdens and responsibilities attached to them? Every year, we at Brown assume the benefits accrued through displacement. But despite promises to do so, we have yet to assume the burdens of this history.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: We can't change the fact that the Brown University of the 20th century played a prominent role in displacing people from their homes and turned a blind eye to the harm. Its decision-making was unleashing on the East side, but we, the Brown University of the 21st century, we can urge our institution to embrace the burdens alongside the benefits of our role as neighbors.
SARAH BALDWIN: We aren't suggesting that by acting unilaterally, a single enlightened private institution like Brown can change a housing system as rotten as ours. But we do believe that it was imperative for our team, Brown students, alumni, and staff to recognize our own complicity in this system by interrogating the history of which we are a part.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: If Brown were to make good on its promise on the bond bred side by building affordable housing for low-income community members, the politics of possibility for housing in Rhode Island would shift tremendously. Such an action would inspire other so-called anchor institutions, Rhode Island universities, and hospitals to critically evaluate their own involvement in our state's unforgiving, profit-driven housing system.
SARAH BALDWIN: We started this series by asking a simple question. What does it mean to lose your home in the midst of a global pandemic? We're ending with an even simpler answer. There is never a safe time, never a humane time, pandemic or not, to throw a human being out of their home. To eliminate evictions will demand profound, even systemic transformation, as we've said. But in the year that's passed since we began this podcast, we've seen big changes in what was considered politically possible.
Evanston, Illinois just passed the first bill to pay reparations to Black Americans who lived in the suburb through the height of redlining and urban renewal. Here in Rhode Island, Providence just released a report exploring racial injustice perpetuated throughout the state's 400-year history. And remember that bill Nathaniel mentioned, the one that would protect tenants with housing vouchers from discrimination, the one that our state representatives have rejected for a decade? This session, that bill was approved.
Over the course of this series, we realize that we've left you with more questions than answers, but there are some things about which we can't accept ambiguity. We must face our history of displacement and dispossession. We must reject a system designed to amass wealth for some while trapping others in debt. We must ensure that intergenerational housing stability is a blessing that everyone can enjoy, and we must harness power and imagination to change a system that harms many of us and, therefore, all of us.
We hope that the next time you hear section eight or eviction, you'll remember that our housing system is designed to keep certain people down and out. We hope that the next time you pass someone on the street who's struggling, you'll see someone not so different from yourself. And we hope you'll recognize that you can choose to work toward a system that affirms every human being's right to be housed, a system we can build by using our collective power to transform what we thought was impossible into what's possible.
This special series has been brought to you by the amazing Less to Lean on team.
AMELIA ANTHONY: Amelia Anthony.
SARAH BALDWIN: Sarah Baldwin.
STEVE BLOOMFIELD: Steve Bloomfield.
OSCAR D'ANGEAC: Oscar d'Angeac.
LUCAS FRIED: Lucas Fried.
GABE MERNOFF: Gabe Mernoff.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: Nathaniel Pettit.
DHRUV SINGH: Dhruv Singh.
SARAH BALDWIN: Big Thanks also to Malchus Mills, Tara Raghuveer, Ravi Razu, Danny Richie, Kristina Contreras Fox, Michael Gold, Will Gomberg, Jen Wood, Jordan Mickman, Tony Aikin, Megan Coleman, Christian Montalvo, Elena Scorpio, Mary Jone Bowl, Terry Wright, Christopher Sammy Rotondo, Trey Greer, Justice Gaines, Eric Hirsch, Keith Stokes, Ray Neirinckx, Brenda Clement, and Megan Smith. Biggest thanks of all to Ketia for sharing her story.
This episode of Less to Lean on was produced by Oscar d'Angeac with help from Dan Richards. The theme music is by Henry Bloomfield, additional music by Dot Note Sessions. I'm your host Sarah Baldwin. Thanks for listening.