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Transport Providence Conditionally Endorses Mark Santow

Update: After getting a call from candidate Nirva LaFortune and having extended discussion with her about her transportation and land use influences (Philly, Portland, Denver), I waffled considerably back and forth between Santow and LaFortune and finally decided to vote for LaFortune.

What this came down to for me was a feeling that, though less specific, Nirva had shown considerable interest in the issues that animate our blog and had assured me that her values were with us on the same issues. I do think Santow performed more strongly on the issues than LaFortune, but not enough to overcome my feeling that Providence deserves a more gender/race-diverse council.

But now that Nirva has won the primary and is a shoe-in for the general election, what you can do is follow up with her and remind her how important these issues are. I think with the right organizing and pressure, Nirva will shine and lead the council on this list of priorities, just as Mark would, and I'm even hopeful to use her Philly experiences to pressure Philadelphia in a positive direction too.

Transport Providence is endorsing Mark Santow, with some reservations.

As urbanists, people who care about climate change, social justice, and responsive government, it seems pretty clear that the two candidates to consider strongly are Nirva LaFortune and Mark Santow. Both candidates express a similar constellation of values. It was actually my expectation that by the end of the campaign cycle, both Santow and LaFortune would distinguish themselves fairly equally as candidates, and that the tie-breaker would be the added experience of LaFortune's having grown up as an immigrant Haitian woman in South Providence. While these factors still feel incredibly strong and weigh heavily as a counterweight on the blog's endorsement, and while Transport Providence feels enthusiastically that Nirva would make an excellent city councilperson, only Mark Santow has returned our survey, and his responses are frankly very strong. The ideas he espouses-- broad reform of zoning, protected bike lanes on major avenues, free transit for all, highway removal, parking reform, aggressive affordable housing policy-- are ones we hope that LaFortune campaign would also endorse, but we've only heard them explicitly from Santow. These would be transformational changes, and transformation is what the city needs right now.

Transport Providence did not issue an official deadline for submission, though of all the candidates our blog has personally interacted with LaFortune the most often and has certainly made it clear that we'd like to hear from her. It feels unfair to close the door on a future submission, though the primary on July 12th is growing so close as to make it critical for readers to have the time to sort through the answers before making a decision. We welcome a submission from the LaFortune campaign, and because of the strong need to include women, people-of-color, and immigrants in the city government, have to keep open the possibility that we might change our allegiance in the future. However, it simply does not make sense as a blog to issue a questionnaire, get just one (very strong) response from one candidate, and not offer the backing to that candidate. It would make a mockery of the process of filling out the questionnaire.

Who Not to Vote for is Even Clearer than Who to Vote For
Neither candidates Dan Chaika or David Lallier have even responded to numerous requests for the questionnaire. Transport Providence was intrigued by Chaika's statement in a Go Local Prov interview that he opposed getting rid of the car tax, but has not found anything especially inspiring about his campaign beyond that that rises to the level of Santow or LaFortune. Lallier has run his campaign on opposition to the recently-passed Community Safety Act, which Transport Providence feels will be an important part of continuing to expand racial justice in our city. Candidate Chris Reynolds, while actually himself a cyclist, has disqualified himself completely from consideration because of his racially-charged comments at the most recent debate.

Vote Splitting? A Consideration for Santow and LaFortune to Go Over
And so either LaFortune or Santow would make good candidates, but our endorsement goes to Santow. As a blog, it does seem clearly observable that many of the people who want to vote for one or the other or those two candidates come from the same value set, and so if either Santow or LaFortune intend to win, it may be a good idea for one to drop out and endorse the other. 

The Survey
Here are Mr. Santow's responses (bold is the questions from TransportPVD, and regular typeface is the Santow campaign).

1. Where do you see the ward, and the city more broadly, adding protected bike lanes in the coming years? If you had 25 miles of protected bike lanes to distribute throughout the city, where would they go?

On the East Side, and in Ward 3 especially, it seems like adding protected bike lanes for large stretches of Hope street would make sense – between Rochambeau and Olney, for example, and also perhaps from Overhill up to the end of Lippitt park (essentially, starting at the end of the Hope Street merchant area).  North Main Street would be another viable site, since many people in the ward commute to downtown by bicycle, and presumably many more would do so if we had protected bike lanes there.  Rochambeau from Hope down to Blackstone Boulevard is another possibility.  I’m not a bike rider, so I’m not entirely sure where it’s feasible and where it isn’t.

2. Are there places where you would put neighborhood greenways to improve walkability and bikeability for children, the disabled, and the elderly? Where would they go, in your opinion?

I'm not familiar with the concept of neighborhood greenways, though I certainly do favor any changes in transportation, development policy, land use laws and infrastructure that would lead to greater density and walkability (and more green space). 

3. What will your candidacy do to move the city closer to repealing exclusionary zoning like parking minimumsR1 and R1A zones, and anti-student housing provisions? 

Like much of the country, Providence has an affordable housing crisis.  And land use laws are a big reason why (they’re also a main contributor to economic and racial segregation, and the geographic concentration of poverty).
The crisis has 3 parts to it:
 A lack of affordable units;
 A lack of affordable units in areas of high opportunity; and
Stagnant incomes for renters. Far too many Providence families are spending much if not most of their income on housing.
One result is housing insecurity and eviction, which can have a powerful and lasting impact on children, emotionally, physically, and in terms of chronic absenteeism from school. In my time on the Providence School Board I've seen the consequences of this. Another result is that paying so much for rent is effectively a cause of poverty, not just a consequence, because it destabilizes families, and makes it hard for them to save and build wealth. This connects directly to issues that many families are facing right here in Ward 3, as gentrification raises the cost of both owning and renting, in Mt. Hope in particular.
While federal rental assistance is one of our most effective anti-poverty programs, 2/3 of poor renting families don't receive it.  That situation is only going to get worse under Trump. We're going to have to find our own solutions here in RI.
As a professor of US history and urban studies specializing in the historical origins of racial and economic segregation in housing, I have a pretty good sense of the broader issues at stake here.
What ideas might we consider in Providence?
If we want affordable housing in areas of high opportunity -- housing that doesn't reinforce racial and economic segregation, in other words -- we need to consider stronger inclusionary zoning in suburbia, and similar measures in Providence. For equity reasons as well as sustainability reasons, we should consider using our land use laws to encourage more density, and allow for more multi-family and rental units.  So I certainly think we should consider repealing parking minimums and exclusionary zoning.
We should consider lowering the landlord tax, which leads to higher rents and discourages the production and preservation of affordable rental housing.
Whenever any high-end residential development in the city is subsidized by the taxpayers, some portion could be kicked into an affordable housing trust fund (perhaps some revenue from a more progressive homestead exemption could be used too).
We should encourage non-profits to create community land trusts or community development corporations in gentrifying neighborhoods like Mt. Hope, to keep some units affordable over the long haul.
We should follow Philly's lead, and consider property tax breaks for long-time home owners in gentrifying neighborhoods, to enable them to stay in their homes;
The City Council (and the State House) should prohibit source-of-income discrimination, so that families using rental assistance vouchers have more options.
We could try to learn from Massachusetts. In November 2009 MA passed a law known as Chapter 40T that—among other things—gives the state the “right of first refusal” when owners of affordable housing properties are selling them without a commitment to maintaining affordability. In other words, the state gets first dibs if it wants to preserve the affordable housing. This would help preserve at least some of our current supply of affordable units, in Mt. Hope and elsewhere.
I'm open to a wide variety of ideas here, and I'll do my best to bring these concerns to the City Council if I'm elected. My approach to housing is similar to my approach to urban development more broadly: a preferential option for people who already live here, for the local, the equitable, and the sustainable.

4. The city charges a much higher tax rateon apartment dwellers than homeowners. Will you challenge that to promote affordable housing?

Yes -- see my answer to #3 above. In general, Providence needs to move toward more walkable mixed-use development and affordable housing, by changing its land use laws to reflect this goal.  This is where equity and sustainability goals overlap; if we can move toward denser mixed-use development that is well-served by public transportation, we will reduce racial and economic segregation, and foster a way of living that is healthier and more ecologically sustainable, and more able to support small local businesses -- thus reducing our dependence on expensive tax subsidies to attract large outside companies.  We have some of the oldest housing stock in the nation, especially in the rental sector; these units are expensive, and far more likely to have lead paint, be in poor condition, and have asthma triggers.  We have some of the highest rates of child asthma in the country.  Both lead and asthma directly affect the health and academic achievement of our children.  Part of having a healthy and sustainable city has to include fixing this, by providing better and newer affordable rental options in neighborhoods of opportunity. 

5. What are the top three things you'd like to see improved about RIPTA service in the city? Are there particular routes you use or have used, and what is most frustrating or exciting about the way RIPTA runs?

I certainly favored restoring the no-fare bus pass for seniors and disabled people who are living on a limited income, and was heartened to see the powerful movement that arose (RIPTA Rider’s Alliance, etc) to push it.  I would also like RIPTA to be free for all Providence public high school students, regardless of how far they live from school.  Indeed, I think we should find a way to make it free for everyone, period, paid for by a revenue source that simultaneous discourages private gas-guzzling car use (like a carbon tax, perhaps).  And RIPTA needs more frequent service in walkable dense areas.

6. Our blog has proposed a parking lot taxfor a number of years, which would help raise funds to lower property taxes, and could help promote better land use and address climate change. The econ. on thissupports the idea that wealthy parking landlords like Joe Paolino would have to eat the tax, rather than commuters.

I am certainly open to this idea, because it will encourage land currently used for parking lots to be developed, creating greater density and widening the tax base.  The money raised from the tax could be used to provide tax relief, perhaps covering the revenue lost from reducing the landlord tax – or it could be used to reduce property taxes for long-time homeowners in gentrifying neighborhoods like Mt. Hope.  Or maybe the revenue could be put into an affordable housing trust fund.  Or it could be used to fund RIPTA.

7. I presume you both support immigrant licenses and will push the state to address that (Yay!).

Yes, I do support them.

8. Our blog has stood out for pushing against the notion of lowering the car tax, especially in upper brackets-- what we have called "the Jaguar Tax Cut". This is a state issue, but one which city officials have commented on. Where would you stand? (Here's an Economic Progress RI report supporting our position).

I’m inclined to agree.  Overall, and especially in our urban areas, it seems to me we should be doing our best to discourage car use, and to shift the balance toward public transit, biking and walking – whether we do this through land use policies or through tax policy (or both, ideally).  The state can make better use of its resources by strengthening public transit, and perhaps creating incentives for wider use of alternative fuel cars (and disincentives for the use of cars with low gas mileage).  Given the large bill for public school repairs, retrofits and construction that we have coming due, the opportunity cost of getting rid of the car tax seems just too high to me. 

9. What can we do to make it easier to allow people to put affordable housing in their unused driveways?

It’s a really intriguing idea, given the affordable housing crisis we face.  I would want to look more deeply into other cities that may have tried it; perhaps we could experiment with the required zoning change in a few places, and see how it plays out.

10. How can we address the fissure that I-95 poses to connectivity between neighborhoods in the short- and long-term?

I would have to hear more about this, and look into what some other cities may have done, to connect neighborhoods separated by highways, or even to take down highways altogether.


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