Providence mayoral candidates talk housing, education in Rotary forum

THE ROTARY CLUB of Providence hosted a mayoral debate on Tuesday for the three Democratic candidates vying for the Providence mayor seat. / COURTESY ROTARY CLUB OF PROVIDENCE

PROVIDENCE – Whether it’s public safety perceptions, a struggling public school system or a housing scarcity, each of the three Providence mayoral candidates each say they are the best person to fix the challenges facing the city.

But there are only a few areas of disagreement among the trio, as highlighted during a forum hosted by the Rotary Club of Providence on Tuesday. 

One point of distinction – how to tackle the soaring rents that are both a symptom and a cause of the affordable housing crisis. Gonzalo Cuervo, the former deputy secretary of state and former chief of staff to Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, defended his recently released proposal for rent control, calling the recent spike in rents “price gouging.”

“We have units on south side of Providence that were renting two years ago for $900 now going for $1,600” Cuervo, also a landlord, said. “You can’t explain that away through tax increases. You can’t explain that away because you put in stainless steel appliances and granite countertops.”

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Cuervo also stressed that his proposal is just that, an idea that requires approval from the City Council with a public hearing process.

But Brett Smiley, former top aide to then-Gov. Gina M. Raimondo, denounced Cuervo’s plan as “not good public policy,” warning that rent control will cause landlords to let their properties fall into disrepair while creating a system of winners and losers based on which properties qualify.

City Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune answered by pitching a host of ways to address the housing problem, including changing zoning policies and offering other incentives to increase the supply of affordable housing. 

LaFortune, a higher education administrator, was the only candidate to back the switch to a hybrid city school board in which half of the members are elected, and the other half are appointed by the mayor. The proposal, based on recommendations put forth by the city Charter Review Commission, will go before city voters in November. 

Also on the education front, candidates disagreed about whether uniformed school resource officers from the Providence Police Department belong in city schools. Cuervo called for their removal, citing his memories as a substitute teacher last year in which the uniformed officer patrolled the halls “like in an old prison movie,” inspiring fear in students.

LaFortune also said she wanted them out, referencing legislation she introduced to the council that would have replaced the officers with more social and emotional support for students with behavior problems.

“We can’t police our way out of everything,” LaFortune said.

Smiley, however, was in favor of keeping the officers in the schools if principals wanted them there, on the conditions that they swap their uniforms for more casual attire and that all school administrators be better trained on the scope of such officers’ abilities.

Outside the classroom, public safety – both real and perceived – has been a growing problem in the city. Candidates were quick to criticize the existing status quo and offered ideas for change, from increasing diversity among police leadership, as LaFortune suggested, to putting more uniformed officers on street patrol, as Cuervo suggested. Smiley called for the restoration of community policing as well as better relationships between police and the city leaders, which he characterized as “strained.”

Criticism also pervaded discussion of the city’s tax deals with major nonprofits, universities and hospital systems, many of which are set to expire this year or next. The payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program allows the city to collect some money from tax-exempt institutions, but it’s not nearly enough given the size and wealth of these institutions, candidates agreed.

Both Smiley and LaFortune favored distinctions in tax agreements between the institutions’ “mission-driven” properties such as classrooms and operating rooms and the increasing number of commercial properties they own.

Cuervo also called for reforms but stressed the importance of working with, not against, the institutions in reshaping the deals given their codependent relationship

“Our relationship with nonprofits is a marriage without the possibility of divorce,” Cuervo said.

Seeking to further differentiate himself in closing comments, Smiley raised the “elephant in the room” that is the city’s massive unfunded pension liability. While the city is moving ahead with a plan to borrow money to shore up its pension fund, a move that all candidates have said previously that they support, Smiley was the only one to raise the issue of sustainable pension policies during the forum on Tuesday.

The discussion was moderated by Dan McGowan, a columnist for The Boston Globe Rhode Island, and held at the Providence Marriott Downtown, although it was also streamed on Zoom.

The primary is Sept. 13. Whoever wins the Democratic mayoral primary will be the only name to appear on the ballot in the November general election.

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may contact her at Lavin@PBN.com.

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