Anchor Staff Writer
Gracing the Providence skyline for over a century, the building at 111 Westminster Street, popularly known as the “Superman Building,” has in the last decade remained dormant, a shadow cast over a weary city. Recent developments may just cement its roaring comeback, but those skeptical of this return to glory may have more than a good reason.
On Oct. 20, the Providence City Council voted to move forward with a 30 year tax stabilization agreement slated to revitalize the landmark building. The agreement approved by an 11-3 vote by the council will grant High Rock Development, the building’s owner since 2008, a $29 million tax break while the building is converted from vacant office space to apartment space.
There is no doubt that the city of Providence, like many of the country’s metropolitan centers, is beset by a housing and rent crisis. The city is currently inundated by a severe lack of affordable housing, buoyed by rapidly accelerating rent costs that are squeezing housing accessibility from Providence’s most vulnerable. Proponents of the measure have lauded its passage, claiming it will be a significant step towards expanded housing for the indigent residents of the city. Critics, however, believe there is a devil in the details of the city’s taxation proposal that will benefit the company and wealthiest tenants, and leave those fighting for the right to housing high and dry.
The deal between High Rock Development and the Providence City Council includes a deed provision mandating a paltry twenty percent of the developed apartments to be dedicated “affordable housing.” The so-called affordable units of the finished apartment are projected to have a cost of $1,384 to $2,076 per month. The city has a median household income of $49,065, and even the affordable units of the finished project will leave tenants feeling a significant dent in their wallet. Beyond the obligatory affordable units, living space at the Superman building is expected to cost anywhere from $2,071 to $5,287 per month in rent.
Opponents of the proposal have blasted the tax forgiveness combined with the lack of more forceful action to increase affordability of property in the city. Justin Roias, candidate for Providence City Council in Ward 4, sharply criticized the deal in a statement, lambasting how “Of course, for those who are in touch with reality on the ground, we know that too many people in our city cannot afford these rents. To suggest that these price ranges are ‘affordable’ is a slap in the face to the thousands of residents who are intimately experiencing a housing crisis in our city every day, many of whom are desperate for even a fraction of relief that this proposal would extend to the High Rock developer.”
Enrique Sanchez, State Representative-Elect for District 9, concurred with said criticisms, wondering in a statement, “Where are the tax breaks for working people across our city? Why are we handing out corporate welfare to wealthy private developers during economic instability?”
Beyond the tax forgiveness of $29 million, the proposal will bring in much more than a fair share of cash for the developers. The city has already pledged direct aid of $15 million, the Rhode Island state government has promised $26 million and the federal government will be providing $22 million to the development of the building, totaling a public contribution of over $90 million total.
Looking down from the top floor of a luxury Superman apartment, one may not grasp the enormity of the affordable housing crisis on the ground. As of September, well over 400 individuals have been reported unsheltered in Providence, including 57 families with children. As any living quarters being built to repair the issue can be praised, it’s difficult to imagine the Superman building’s renovation opening new opportunities for these unhoused individuals. Gov. McKee’s administration has pledged to fight the housing and homeless crisis head on, approving $5 million in aid to expand shelters, though housing activists claim that the action fails to comprehend the enormity of the crisis in the state.
Reading through the receipts of the council’s proposal to High Rock development, it’s not a challenge to recognize these concerns. Myriad solutions beyond the council’s actions have been proposed to take immediate forceful action, ranging from continued rent pauses to construction of deeply subsidized housing, but the finalized agreement has unquestionably left a bad taste in the mouth of swathes of Rhode Islanders. This isn’t without cause; developers in Rhode Island have a history of flipping profits off state subsidies, in brazen episodes of corporate banditry. The Superman building will always have a reputation as the most classic iconography of Providence, but as the proposal takes action and the construction begins, Providence can only hope the agreement is more than just a super scam.