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Providence Journal: Concentrated poverty, concentrated problems

Published on April 11, 2017

By Casby Harrison III

By now it is well known that a large contingent of South Providence opposes former Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino’s proposal to create 140 units of housing for the homeless at the former St. Joseph Hospital in zip code 02907.

The essence of these neighborhood concerns is that poverty is being concentrated in South Providence in a manner that is not occurring in other neighborhoods. Poverty is one thing, but concentrated poverty is an entirely different animal. The U.S. Census, HUD and a large body of social science literature define concentrated poverty as an area with 20 to 40 percent of the population living below the federal poverty line.

It is well documented that when poverty is disproportionately concentrated in one community, it is devastating to that community. The community gets ignored for having a constituency that is the least informed and least likely to vote. Banks, supermarkets and a variety of other businesses engage in predatory practices such as redlining and predatory lending because they know the poor and disenfranchised are a very vulnerable class of people who have limited options.

Where there is concentrated poverty there is more hunger. And because of the hunger, there is more crime. And because there is more crime, insurance companies charge higher premiums, and banks charge higher interest rates. Mr. Paolino’s proposal will most definitely adversely affect all of that.

The location of Mr. Paolino’s proposal in 02907 will exacerbate a higher cost of goods and services, and a decline in property values. The existing class of homeowners will begin their flight out of the community, increasing the number of absentee landlords, compounding neighborhood blight and creating an absence of positive role models.

Racism is still a factor in American life. Minorities are still disproportionately trapped in communities where poverty is more entrenched and concentrated. Concentrated poverty does not happen by accident.

There is a documented history of government policies that forced people to move into communities based on race and class. Policies that denied minorities of color access to white suburban housing developments. Policies that had racial restrictions contained in them. Concentrated poverty is not an unintended result of benign policies.

It occurs because of purposeful planning by decision makers in government and the private sector with political influence, who typically do not reside in the affected community.

South Providence would welcome a conversion of St. Joseph into an apartment complex with market rate units for residents who would contribute to the uplift of the community. Similarly, the community would welcome the opportunity to purchase vacant lots surrounding St. Joseph for $1,000 as Mr. Paolino did, so that the community could build appropriate housing and engage in positive neighborhood redevelopment.

Mayor Jorge Elorza told a crowd of several hundred assembled in the lobby of St. Joseph that if the community does not want this homeless project, it will not happen. The residents of South Providence intend to hold Mayor Elorza to this promise, even if it means asserting in federal court that the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits housing decisions that disproportionately adversely affect predominantly minority inner-city areas.

Casby Harrison III, a lawyer, has lived and worked in South Providence for over 30 years.

Courtesy of Providence Journal