Providence agency seeks to acquire hundreds of vacant city homes

Bob Azar briefs the PRA on EveryHome.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Providence Redevelopment Agency wants to take control of more than 300 vacant homes throughout Rhode Island’s capital city as part of the Elorza administration’s ambitious plan to rid the city of the bulk of its abandoned properties.

The latest phase of the city’s EveryHome program would allow the quasi-public PRA to use its broad powers to acquire hundreds of properties through eminent domain proceedings, purchase, and tax sale or by having existing homeowners gift their properties to the agency, according to Bob Azar, the city’s deputy director of planning and development.

The PRA board of directors voted Thursday to ask the City Council and the City Plan Commission for permission to proceed with the acquisition process, although it is unclear when the agency will actually begin taking over properties.

“I think this is a nice first step,” James DeRentis, the PRA’s board chairman, said before the vote.

pra-map
Where the vacant properties are located

In 2015 Mayor Jorge Elorza announced a lofty goal of eliminating all of the 500 to 600 vacant properties in the city within six years by utilizing a suite of tools that included expanding the city’s home receivership policy, providing capital to help jumpstart renovation plans for homes and removing blighted properties from the onerous tax sale process. He called the program EveryHome.

Little has been said about the program in the 16 months following Elorza’s announcement, as city officials encountered a receivership process that was more tedious than originally expected. To date, 43 properties have been completely rehabilitated through receivership and another 34 are currently going through the process, according to Victor Morente, a spokesperson for the mayor.

Morente said the EveryHome program has expanded to include a federally-funded home repair program that has helped 36 properties. He also said the city has ramped up enforcement of housing code violations.

The PRA’s proposal could increase the pace of the city’s plan to eliminate vacant properties, but planning department officials cautioned that the acquisition process can’t occur overnight. An attorney who works for the PRA told the board it may still have to go through Rhode Island Superior Court if it wants to use eminent domain or tax sales.

total-vacant-props

Bonnie Nickerson, the city’s planning director, said the city is hopeful it can partner with developers with the ability to rehabilitate more than one property at a time, but she acknowledged city officials are still discussing how the process will work. Ultimately, the goal is to place each property back on the market.

Nickerson said it is unclear how much the PRA intends to spend acquiring the 324 vacant properties the city has already identified. An Eyewitness News analysis of tax assessments shows the properties are worth a combined $38.4 million, although it is unlikely the agency would be forced to pay market value for every home on its list.

Nearly one third of the properties the PRA is seeking to acquire are in Wards 10 and 11, which are located on Providence’s South Side. Because the PRA’s work must occur in designated redevelopment zones, most vacant properties on the East Side and in the Mount Pleasant and Elmhurst neighborhood would not be eligible for acquisition. The most valuable property listed is 149 Delaine Street, a set of three buildings in Olneyvile worth $482,900, records show.

The decision to allow the PRA to control a large part of the EveryHome program could pay dividends for the city. State law gives redevelopment agencies sweeping power to make changes to blighted and substandard areas, including the ability to issue bonds. While the City Council still has a say over some PRA decisions and two councilors sit on the PRA board, the agency benefits from autonomy not seen in other parts of city government.

Separately, the city is currently seeking to hire a program manager for the EveryHome program. The grant-funded position will pay $65,000 per year.

CORRECTION: 149 Delaine Street was originally listed as one property. It is three buildings.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan