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RI POLITICS

For Central Falls Mayor Rivera, one call captures many of the challenges of her first year

On the Rhode Island Report podcast, the state’s first Latina mayor talks about the pandemic, the housing crisis, and plans for a new high school

Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — That one call encapsulates many of the challenges that Mayor Maria Rivera has faced during her first year as the mayor of Central Falls and the state’s first Latina mayor.

“I had someone contact me, asking for support for their 7- and 8-year old nephews because they found their uncle dead in the bathroom,” Rivera recalled on the Rhode Island Report podcast.

The man had died from COVID-19 – one of the many victims of the virus in this impoverished, 1.3-square-mile majority-Latino city, which has once again become Rhode Island’s hot spot.

“They reached out to me looking for an apartment because these kids were having real issues,” Rivera said. “You know, it’s a huge impact on them. They couldn’t sleep. They couldn’t do their schoolwork. They couldn’t talk to any one. And to top it off, these kids were undocumented.”

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The caller was looking for an apartment. But Central Falls is facing both a public health crisis and a housing crisis, and the consequences can be deadly here because people have no place to isolate in this densely populated city of triple-deckers.

“I don’t have an answer for them because we don’t have apartments,” Rivera said. So the city is asking the state for $4.5 million so it can buy unused property to build about 200 apartments.

“Site acquisition is a huge challenge for Central Falls,” Rivera said. “We have a $19 million budget. I can’t take out $5 million to acquire these properties.”

But that funding would make a big difference in Rhode Island’s smallest city, she said.

“It would make a huge difference for our residents who are going through domestic violence through this pandemic,” Rivera said. “The domestic violence rate has also gone up tremendously. It’s our number one phone call in the police department. So to be able to give them a safe, affordable space would be huge.”

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It would also help those who must live with other family members because they can’t afford to pay for their rent, she said. “To be able to give them the space where they can afford and have their own space, it’s going to make a huge difference with the health in the city.”

One of the highlights of Rivera’s first year in office has been securing approval for $144 million in funding to improve Central Falls schools, including $120 million for a new high school.

Rivera graduated from Central Falls High School in 1995, and she said the 95-year-old building at 24 Summer St. was in poor condition back then. She recalled that when she was sworn in as City Council president, she sat on the high school stage as plaster fell from the ceiling.

“It’s not safe, it’s not healthy,” Rivera said. “It’s not appropriate for us to have our children in a high school like that.”

So she is looking forward to opening a new high school on Higginson Avenue in 2024.

“Our children, our students deserve to have a new high school,” Rivera said. “I don’t want to have a new high school because I want to have a new building in the city. I want to have a new high school because I want to see our students succeed.”

Hear more by downloading the latest episode of Rhode Island Report, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player above.

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Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.