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RI HOUSING

Providence announces new program to acquire vacant land to build affordable housing

The city will use $8.5m in American Rescue Plan Act funds to acquire, hold, and transfer underused land throughout Providence

A boarded up, vacant home in South Providence.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — In the middle of a statewide housing crisis, the city of Providence has a favor to ask: Do you know of any vacant plots of land where affordable housing could be built?

On Thursday, Mayor Jorge O. Elorza announced the creation of the Providence Neighborhood Land Bank, a program funded with $8.5 million of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funds that will acquire, hold, and transfer underused vacant land throughout the city with the goal of generating new affordable housing.

The Land Bank program will be housed within the Providence Redevelopment Agency, which is led by executive director Bonnie Nickerson. As part of the program, the agency will also release pre-approved, fully permitted small home plans prepared by local architects, for the eventual construction.

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“Bold policies and funding are needed to address the housing crisis in Rhode Island and nationwide,” said Elorza in the Aldermen Chambers in City Hall during a press conference. “The Providence Neighborhood Land Bank Program is an important step in finding creative solutions to transform neighborhoods and prioritizing land for those who need it most.”

The city hopes to start acquiring eligible properties during spring 2023 and begin executing the first round of development agreements and funding awards for lots through the summer.

The city’s redevelopment agency has a live database of vacant, abandoned, and dilapidated property. Once a property has been screened to conform with the acquisition policies — like zoning, lot size, and suitability of the lot for housing — the program acquires it through tools like the city’s tax reverted list, donations, negotiated purchase, and eminent domain, among others.

Once a property has been acquired, it enters the “banking phase.” During this period, the redevelopment agency will start acquiring and assembling neighboring lots as part of larger developments; obtain exemption from property taxes during the time of the Lank Bank program’s ownership; maintain the property; conduct environmental and other necessary site inspections; and create the terms of development, including price and use. The agency will also extinguish any liens and clear the title of any defects.

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In the Land Bank program’s final stage, the agency would transfer properties in its portfolio for redevelopment “when appropriate.” Some projects, like single-family homes, may be ready to transfer shortly after acquisition. But other projects may take several months or longer. No matter the timeline, according to Elorza, the Lank Bank program is designed to be flexible.

Mayor Jorge O. Elorza at the newly rehabilitated Paragon Mills during a tour in April 2022. The property was blighted for years, but was rehabilitated into affordable housing units.David Santilli

Cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Orleans all have land bank programs to spur affordable housing development and develop urban agriculture. But third-party organizations in some cities, such as the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities, have raised questions over the program’s effectiveness and slow pace of sales after almost a decade of that city’s land bank program.

For some affordable housing developers in Rhode Island, like ONE Neighborhood Builders executive director Jennifer Hawkins, the announcement of the Land bank program was welcome news as the state faces a critical housing shortage that goes beyond Providence.

“We have shown that small properties throughout the city can be developed for affordable housing and can help revitalize our neighborhoods,” said Hawkins.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.