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The Devious Populism of Sam Zurier

Zurier's district is the only one in Providence
that became less friendly to multi-family housing
than it had been before the recent zoning overhaul.
Institutional racism at play.
Sam Zurier, councilman for the Summit, Wayland and Blackstone neighborhoods, has made fighting multi-family housing a pet cause, and his finesse for the topic is unmatched. Zurier presents his activism as progressive, and because the issue is convoluted and hard for most people to understand, he mostly gets away with it.

Zurier wrote this week about his brave efforts to keep a higher rate on "non-resident" rental properties on his blog, using the frame of the Providence Student Union's bus pass victory to add glimmer to what otherwise would be plain ol' NIMBYism:

Last Friday, I was told the City Council leadership was working with the administration to find around $2 million in additional revenues and/or savings to fund a tax cut for nonresident landlords.  On Monday, they announced they had found almost $1.9 million in savings.  In response, I joined the Providence Student Union in asking why there was money for landlord tax relief, but no money to expand the student bus pass program.  On Thursday afternoon, the Mayor and City Council leadership announced the landlord tax cut would be reduced by $680,000 to fund the bus passes, leaving $1.2 million in tax cuts for the nonresident landlords. 
On Thursday night, the Finance Committee reviewed the revised budget for final consideration and recommendation to the City Council.  The new budget included the $1.2 million tax cut for landlords.  At the hearing, I suggested alternatives to this tax cut.  The premise of the tax cut was that nonresident landlords had seen their tax rate rise to 75% above the homeowner’s rate, and they wished to reduce the differential to 70%.  I asked the Committee to consider data the Internal Auditor reviewed that demonstrated that although the differential between homeowner’s and nonresident landlord’s tax rates increased from 70% to 75% in 2013, the differential in taxes paidbetween the two classes of taxpayers declined from 27% to 23% that year because of the revaluation.  I suggested that a $1.2 million tax cut for nonresident landlords would send the wrong message to the General Assembly, where the City is currently asking for a $2.5 million increase in unrestricted State aid.
There's absolutely no disputing that finding a budget item to swap in order to pay for student bus passes is a good thing (although I've pointed out many times that bus passes are a more expensive and less adequate way to address student transportation than quality biking infrastructure). Zurier also names a number of other important goals that the city should fund, and many of them (like better funding libraries) have significant merit. What we should focus on here though is the deviousness of presenting a special tax on "non-resident" landlords as a type of Robin Hood tax. What it is in reality is a tax on renters, who are as a group less likely to have access to wealth than those who own homes.

Zurier is skilled at this. For instance, who can really argue with hating on landlords (I can't)?
The owner-occupant frame works because a large number of Americans own homes, and because a person who owns several homes but rents them sounds mercenary and selfish. We as a culture don't think clearly about the wealth gap, and address it. Instead we think of whether something is 'commercial' as a proxy for that conversation. A tax on people who apparently own more homes than the one they live in just sounds reasonable. But think of it this way:

Owner occupant A: owns one house, worth $1.5 million
Landlord B: owns ten houses, each worth $150,000, but all are rented out.

Who's richer?

This is Problem #1 with Zurier's argument: it's like "which weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of bricks?" They both own $1.5 million worth of stuff. The answer is both are rich. But the landlord is taxed higher. No problem: people who rent often need to rent for one reason or another--so the landlord can pass this tax on to whoever rents.

Zurier says that this fact doesn't matter, because if you corrected it, the landlord certainly wouldn't pass on the savings. And as someone who has had some real assholes as landlords (as well as a few nice people too) I can say that this frame emotively resonates with me. Problem #2 with Zurier's populist claim is that the savings for tenants are not based on individual kindly landlords passing on tax cuts. They're based on the potential for increased rental development, which in competing with existing landlords would eventually force their hand to be competitive with rental prices.

Which brings us to Problem #3; Zurier worked really closely with the Providence Planning Dept. to make sure that his ward was the only one in Providence that became more restrictive to multi-family housing. Zurier also prominently worked against the subdivision of the Granoff mansion (the frame for the fight was historic "preservation" and maintaining the "character" of the neighborhood, but the proposal would have preserved the mansion in its grandeur, and simply let the hoi peloi who don't own mansions live in sections of it). All the idealism that is placed behind NIMBY ideas like this, that somehow people are preserving something good about Providence, ignores the fact that it's the main tool of exclusivity, classism, and racism. And making it so that beautiful historic buildings that were developed for the mega-rich can't be subdivided even for the sort-of rich or upper-middle-class means that the chances that such buildings will continuously be maintained is lessened. It also means preserving the East Side as some kind of museum to suburban sprawl instead of allowing it to gradually densify the way that historic Providence did through all of its best years.

No new multi-family housing? No competition with landlords. No affordable housing options. No chance that a tax cut to landlords would ever be passed on. A neat, tight little circle, this is.

So, again, I congratulate the Providence Student Union. But I really don't like this frame that PSU has allowed Zurier to use on its behalf. Working for housing equity is important, and Sam Zurier is square on the wrong side of the issues that matter for housing equity. And no matter how you slice it, that's not progressive.



  1. "exclusivity, classism, and racism"

    Also characterizes councilman Zurier's work to establish and maintain enclaves of privilege in what is otherwise the sacrifice zone known as Providence Public Schools.

    1. It gets my ire up that Providence zones out certain types of housing, because those are the types of housing I grew up in. The Philly area doesn't really have triple deckers, but we have a lot of rowhouses and twins, even well into the suburbs, and there's also a healthy sprinkling of apartment buildings. Even Zurier's neighborhood has some (really gorgeous) apartment buildings in it, and the zoning code had to be written to give those little islands of acceptance. What I'd want to know is why if the neighborhood has such nice examples of mixed-use building in it we would want to prevent more.