SWAP Inc. makes neighborhoods a home again

COMING TOGETHER: Construction workers Louiz Jandielson, left, and Vitor Dos Santos work on a home that is being put together by SWAP Inc. / PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY
COMING TOGETHER: Construction workers Louiz Jandielson, left, and Vitor Dos Santos work on a home that is being put together by SWAP Inc. / PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY

PBN Business Excellence Awards 2020
Community Involvement: SWAP Inc.

NEIGHBORHOOD REVITALIZATION HAS BEEN a focus within Rhode Island’s capital city for SWAP Inc. since the late Berta Philips first organized a group in 1975 to help bring back a derelict neighborhood in ­Providence.

In the 45 years since, SWAP, which stands for Stop Wasting Abandoned Property, continues to provide affordable-housing opportunities and revitalize neighborhoods in both Providence and across Rhode Island as a whole.

“We’ve been here for all of those years in south Providence, and most of our work over the last 25 years has been very focused on south Providence,” SWAP Executive Director Carla DeStefano said.

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While much of SWAP’s efforts have been focused on Providence, the Providence-based nonprofit does work to help people find affordable housing elsewhere. It recently developed two affordable homes in Barrington.

With Rhode Island having an affordable-housing shortage that has continued for several years, DeStefano said part of the issue in combating the problem is that constructing homes is an expensive venture.

“So, if there’s a piece of land and you can put a house on it, right now builders and developers are putting more-expensive houses on that land,” she said.

Affordable housing, DeStefano said, needs some sort of assistance to make it affordable to who SWAP is targeting: middle-income Rhode Islanders. That funding, which can come from tax credits or federal programs, is very competitive. SWAP works to secure this funding with a development proposal and build products, such as rental housing and mixed-use housing.

In the past few years, SWAP has completed two new developments, which are Maplewoods Apartments in northern Providence and Revitalize South Side. It is also working to build two mixed-use buildings and preserve 76 rental units in south Providence.

“Not only do we build new and create more, but we also work to preserve housing, especially rental housing so that it stays affordable,” DeStefano said.

DeStefano said that entry-level homeownership is a big challenge. SWAP is constantly looking for land to build housing that works for the first-time homeowner, and the organization competes to gain funding for that.

“We’ve been around for 45 years and we’ve got a lot of name recognition, so people come to us. They’re looking for nice affordable apartments, professionally managed and they’re looking to buy their first home,” DeStefano said.

SWAP gets approximately 1,200 to 1,400 people a year looking for housing and the nonprofit has long waitlists of people looking for affordable housing or rentals.

Another struggle in developing affordable housing, DeStefano said, is dealing with the idea of density. “The fear is the density word, what’s going to happen, especially when it’s a nonprofit coming from the city,” she said. “We have to look and battle. Every developer is a battle.”

Peter Bortolotti, SWAP’s board vice president, said the organization’s philosophy has always been to find good locations to remodel homes or rebuild homes, provide affordable housing in a rental format with new buildings or to rehabilitate old ones.

Adjusting with the times is something Bortolotti also admires about SWAP. With laws and legislative bodies changing frequently, the organization has needed to adapt to the current scene, including having a focus on mixed-use zoning.

“We’ve had to adjust, and I’d like to think the organization will continue to do that, as any good organization does,” Bortolotti said. “It’s not easy.”

Bortolotti pointed to the positive impact SWAP Inc. has made over time. He highlighted a location at 500 Broad St. in Providence that has turned into a center for commerce, as well as properties across from the South Side Cultural Center.

“It brings a little pride into the area and the people in the neighborhood. They renovate [the properties], and they maintain them. Just over time, it makes the neighborhood a much nicer area to live in,” he said. “It’s a very positive organization and I’m very proud to be a member of it.”

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