With the fate of the Superman building unknown, downtown Providence could look very different in a few years. I’m relatively new to Rhode Island, but don’t want the state’s most well-known building to be housing only for the uppercrust.
Such redevelopment could not only gentrify downtown and push low income residents further out of Downcity which limits their ability to get to work and partake in the dynamic life of the city, but it also limits the ability of the city to attract the “creative class” that has been time and again pointed to as a way to rejuvenate a city’s economy (most recently by Governor Chaffee in his NYT justification for signing the same-sex marriage bill).
The thing is, there is a way to both revitalize downtown and ensure that it does not lock out either the poor that need access to the services (like the busses) and the jobs that the city has to offer or the creative class that may one day have the money to purchase high-income residences but maybe not the first time they buy or rent a home.
What Providence needs is a good model for integrated housing success. That can be found in Montgomery County, MD.
As early as 1974, Montgomery County developed a mixed income housing plan that required all new developments to include low and middle income housing if they wanted to build high-income housing. A pretty thorough description of Montgomery County’s plan can be found here, but the model breaks down to three components:
- All new housing developments have to include a) a section of low income housing b) a section of middle income market rate housing.
- A sizable chunk of the new housing is available for the county to purchase through it’s housing administration.
- The housing administration then uses the low income housing for two things: 1) for section 8 voucher recipients and 2) to help low income residents purchase their first properties.
What Montgomery County developments mainly look like now is a dream for land use planners. It is more racially and economically integrated than most of the U.S. and it is relatively sustainable.
The thing is, the plan also resulted in some other not-necessarily foreseen consequences: good schools and a sustainable government structure.
Instead of having all the poor and poorly prepared students housed in schools segregated from the high performing schools which results in a bifurcated system where the poor kids get locked into low performing schools and the rich kids either opt out of the system or stay in locally based high performing public schools not available to kids from across town, Montgomery County has diverse AND high performing schools.
In fact, Montgomery County is ranked as one of the best school systems in the country. And what’s more, they have done better than almost all other school systems at decreasing the race and economic gap in test scores. The reason is obvious—struggling students are not all housed together in struggling schools. Instead struggling students are placed in the same schools (with the same funds) as high performing students. No school is overwhelmed by struggling students, they each have a mix to work with.
But they also have enough money to do so since the tax base includes people from all walks of life—not just the poor and not just the rich.
But if people can’t be persueded by what’s best for all incomes, we might want to consider what’s best for the future economic growth of the city. The “creative class” does not necessarily start life rich. They are artists, technicians, programmers, and engineers. They are also almost uniformly young–too young to have much financial capital at their fingertips for down payments on high-priced homes. Their careers are usually marked by relative poverty (or at least relative lower middle classism) as they embark on starting new businesses or enter their first jobs in tech firms. So if they can’t find housing close to what the city has to offer, they will go to a different city where they can get around without a car and still be able to access the cultural life they thrive on.
Montgomery County has a thriving technology industry and they are second to Boston in the number of biotech companies that are housed within their borders. Most of these were once start-ups where the owners and workers made very little in the first few years, and those companies that have found their footing and turned into money making ventures have stayed because their workers like where they live.