PROVIDENCE — State Senator Samuel W. Bell and Representative Brian C. Newberry might not agree on much, but the progressive Democrat and the rural Republican agree that a new budget proposal gives the state too much power to seize private property.
Bell, a Providence Democrat, raised the issue on Twitter, pointing out that Governor Daniel J. McKee’s proposed amendments to the 2024 state budget includes a section that says the Department of Housing can take property through eminent domain.
The language is included in an appendix to a proposed housing budget article, which includes a low-income housing tax credit program, a municipal homelessness support initiative, and a “proactive housing development subsidiary.” Under that provision, the state Department of Housing would be authorized, through Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor, to “purchase, take, receive, lease, or otherwise acquire” property “wherever situated” – or to “acquire any land” by the “exercise of the power of eminent domain” in accordance with state law.
“I know nobody cares and nothing matters anymore, but the powers Stefan Pryor is asking for in this latest governor’s budget amendment are audacious and outrageous,” Bell tweeted. “The General Assembly has to say no.”
I know nobody cares and nothing matters anymore, but the powers Stefan Pryor is asking for in this latest Governor's Budget Amendment are audacious and outrageous. The General Assembly has to say no.— Sam Bell (@SamuelWBell) May 12, 2023
Bell said the request would allow the Department of Housing to seize property for any reason. And he cited the “historical legacy,” saying, “During Providence’s infamous neighborhood clearings, low-income people had their homes seized and demolished. It was the biggest mass eviction in state history.”
Bell agreed that the government does sometimes need the power of eminent domain. “But it needs very careful protections, including at a bare, bare, bare minimum a public hearing and public disclosure,” he wrote. “Vesting it in the hands of one official is wild. And when that official is Stefan Pryor....” He did not complete the sentence.
In response, Department of Housing spokesman Matthew Sheaff said, “In drafting this legislation, the small, initial Housing Department team laid out the basic duties and authorities associated with a functional and effective department. Among the obvious responsibilities and capabilities related to the establishment of a housing department are those that pertain to land use.”
Sheaff, who also acts as a spokesman for the governor, noted that the legislation “specifically requires the department to operate under the constraints and requirements of existing eminent domain law.” And he said the department “must go through the already codified process of applying to the State Properties Committee with a request for authorization and must move through a standard and rigorous multi-step protocol in order to proceed.”
“It’s important to note that other state government departments are vested with eminent domain authority, including the Department of Environmental Management and the Department of Transportation in order to perform their functions,” Sheaff said. “This Housing Department authority is not being sought with any specific scenario in mind.”
But, he said, “We have been very public about the fact that, given the complex situation at Memorial Hospital, the department is considering the pursuit of eminent domain in this case (among other options) – in order to ensure that, as a last resort, the situation can be sorted out through the exercise of eminent domain.”
Pryor has previously said that he believes the housing department could proceed in a condemnation of the Memorial Hospital property in Pawtucket – which would allow the state to take the property from its owner through eminent domain or some other governmental function. The property could then be redeveloped into “much-needed housing opportunities for Rhode Islanders, including for families experiencing homelessness,” Housing Department spokesman Joseph Lindstrom has said.
But if the state does seize the property, it will be responsible for the remediation, maintenance and repair costs — which could amount to millions of dollars, according to court filings.
Newberry, a North Smithfield Republican who previously served as House minority leader, responded to Bell on Twitter, saying: “Sam and I don’t agree on much so when we do people should listen.”
On Monday, Newberry said the government should make “very limited use” of eminent domain powers for things such as building a road, a bridge, or a military facility. But he said the government should not be seizing private property to build housing.
Rhode Island definitely needs to build more housing, Newberry said. “But there are other ways to incentivize construction or to stop de-incentivizing construction,” he said. “My point is: Talk to builders in this state. They say the red tape you have to go through to build anything is a nightmare.”
On Wednesday, Rhode Island Republican Party chairman Joe Powers issued a statement, saying, “It is not bad enough that (House) Speaker Joe Shekarchi, a land use attorney, is pushing bills that override local control in a way that could benefit his past, present or future clients. Now we have legislation which would allow Stefan Pryor to take someone’s home, although it is not blighted, and give it to someone else for housing. This is not only unfair, but probably unconstitutional.”
Powers said the proposal contains inadequate safeguards for use of eminent domain. “This bill does not prohibit property seized through eminent domain from being transferred to a private developer or to be used for a development which is a mix of commercial and residential,” he said. “In fact, under this bill, Pryor could use eminent domain to seize property and then transfer it to a developer, who is a client of Shekarchi.”
In April, the House passed legislation that would allow the conversion of offices, schools, and others commercial buildings into housing. The state GOP objected, questioning whether it is meant to benefit clients of Shekarchi, a Democrat whose Warwick law office handles zoning and land use permitting. But Shekarchi noted the bill was supported by the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, and he said it does not impact any of his current or past clients.
Updated with comments from Rhode Island Republican Party chairman Joe Powers