Nothing To Smile About When Providence Politicians Dismiss Out Of Control Rent

In the latest Chattering Classes column, Options’ editor-in-chief asks Brett Smiley does he really want to be the mayor that presides over the death of Providence’s Queer scene?

Photo via Unsplash and edited by Options Magazine

Out of control rent spikes are pushing out the diverse communities that make Rhode Island’s capital so special. If action isn’t taken, we will soon see the death of Providence’s Queer scene.


Rent spikes have become a top concern in Providence. On August 21, Options' podcast Providence Vibes discussed an article from WPRI. It stated that Providence saw the fifth highest rent spike in the nation. Days later, a prominent national journalist, Matthew Yglesias, reported that, over the last six months, Providence saw the second highest rent spike in the country.


Is Providence’s LGBTQ community under threat? We often hear how something disproportionately affects LGBTQ people or other marginalized groups. One could feel such a statement is made to get our interest but might not feel it is a serious concern for a specific group of people. This isn’t the case. Rent spikes don’t just disproportionately affect Queer Rhode Islanders. When one looks at the makeup of LGBTQ people here, rent spikes are a perfect storm landing on Queer Rhode Islanders. It is hard to see there being anything left of Providence’s Queer and Trans communities without the city taking immediate and aggressive action.


Providence’s Queer community skews younger, lower income, and we are far more likely to rent than straight people. Less than half of LGBTQ adults are homeowners, compared to 70 percent of straight people. Looking at Rhode Island, we see the state’s LGBTQ residents are more likely to live on a lower income (28 percent make less than $24,000 a year) and on average are over ten years younger than the average straight Rhode Islander. (The average age of an LGBTQ Rhode Islander is 37, compared to the average age of a straight Rhode Islander is 49.)


Skewing younger matters when talking about rents. Over 65 percent of adults 35 and under are renters. Less than 32 percent of 45 to 54 years old rent. Younger people also haven’t had the time to build up the income and savings needed to absorb shocks in housing costs.


This shouldn’t be a surprise. Providence has long been a place Queer people on a budget in New England could move to. It doesn’t take long to realize that with the second highest rent increase in the United States, Providence is headed toward a mass exodus of LGBTQ residents.


With housing costs being such a pressing concern facing the city, it has become an issue in the race for Providence mayor between Gonzalo Cuervo, City Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune, and out candidate Brett Smiley. Last week, Providence Business News reported on a debate where Cuervo gave his support for rent control and called rent spikes “price gouging.” Smiley rejected rent control and claimed it would lead to landlords not maintaining their properties.


Smiley has a good chance of being the next mayor and this writer is not looking to ask voters to support or reject him. Yet, he is an Options reader, so this writer must ask Brett Smiley, do you really want to be the mayor that presides over the death of Providence’s Queer scene?


Being the brass writer I am, I didn’t wait to see if Smiley would read this piece, I reached out to his campaign and asked just that.


Smiley didn’t answer the question, but he did expand on his views on housing. First, he reiterated a long-held trope against rent control that we need to build more housing. He told Options “I have been vocal about the lack of affordability of rents and I plan to solve the problem by building more units, especially homes families, not just students, can live in.” He continued, stating that he has “consistently advocated for an aggressive increase in low and moderate-income housing throughout the city.”


Smiley also doubled down on his opposition to rent control and claims about landlords. He stated “rent control has proven to be ineffective in other cities – there are too many people left out, landlords stop properly maintaining buildings and it does nothing to control costs or the tax burden on property owners.” He finished by stating “in Providence, many landlords are local, long-term residents.”


The idea we can build more supply to meet demand doesn’t really get at the problem. To start, if it could work, we wouldn’t be able to build fast enough to help people right now. It also doesn’t add up. Rhode Island’s rents have gone up right after its population decreased. If we just needed more homes, why would we have nearly 600,000 homeless Americans at a time when the U.S. Census reported there are 16 million vacant homes in this country?


Housing is an essential – which puts renters at risk to be abused. The state of Rhode Island has a say in the price of other utilities and essential needs. Hikes in electricity rates, water, and health insurance premiums must be submitted for state approval. Rhode Island even dictates the maximum cost a patient can be charged to buy insulin.


Our government spends a lot of time and energy ensuring every home has access to the electrical grid, clean water, and that the price for both is reasonable. Yet, government does very little to ensure there is enough housing for the population or that the price to rent or buy a place to live is within reason.


Unlike other utilities, there is no government panel a landlord must go to for approval of a rent increase. When an investor buys a home and lets it sit empty, there is no city entity that approves such a sale. If someone with enough money bought most units in Providence and decided no one could live in them, this writer isn’t aware of a single law or rule that would be broken. One can’t do that with electricity or water.


It is also not accurate to claim rent control doesn’t work or that landlords would let their units fall into disrepair because of it. Anyone renting in Providence can tell you landlords are not maintaining their units right now while they hike rents. One need only walk around Broadway to see flyers up asking tenants whose units are managed by RentProv to go to a tenant meeting at Dexter Park to discuss dilapidated units that landlords refuse to repair. Don’t take this writer’s word for it with only a few observations. Surveying over 3,000 renters Policy Link found that tenants who had the protections of rent control are far more likely to report landlords who don’t maintain their properties.


Our city isn’t facing a housing crisis, we are facing a regulations crisis that if left unchecked will end Providence’s Queerness. The question for us – Providence residents and aspiring mayors alike – is do we want to keep our city’s working-class diversity or do we want the only LGBTQ residents left to be just a few, mostly white, high-income homeowners on the East Side?