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College Provides $750,000 to Fight Blight at Its Doorstep

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A three-story residence on Osborn Street, near Providence College, was among the properties that the Smith Hill Community Development Corporation renovated for use as affordable housing. The college has pledged $750,000 to the organization to support its work. (Smith Hill Community Development Corporation)

Plenty of urban colleges struggle with neighborhood blight, and Providence College is among them. Situated on 105 acres overlooking Providence, R.I., the college borders Smith Hill, where abandoned homes reduce property values, attract squatters, and invite crime.

But rather than reach into the neighborhood and buy up dilapidated houses for demolition and redevelopment, the college this month pledged $750,000 over three years to the Smith Hill Community Development Corporation, which guts and restores homes and then rents them back, at a discount, to low-income families. The college’s partnership with the CDC, as the Smith Hill organization is known, is an uncommon approach to a widespread problem.

“Providence College has always been a good neighbor to its surrounding communities,” says Francis H. Smith, executive director of the CDC. The college has a track record of investing “human capital” in the neighborhood, he says, sending students out to perform tasks like home-energy audits and help with community cleanups.

The college and the CDC have also collaborated on such projects as an after-school program at a local recreation center and a revolving-loan fund for the neighborhood, where a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line.

Now the college is going beyond its previous overtures, Mr. Smith says. “It’s different when you can point to something physical, like a [three-story house], and say, ‘The school helped to take that out of foreclosure and worked with the local community-development corporation to put three families in there who were desperately in need of affordable housing.’”

Discussions about the gift began in earnest just as Mr. Smith’s organization was completing a $12-million project that opened up 52 homes in Smith Hill, he says. The CDC gets its primary financing from a number of government and quasi-governmental agencies. But when it identifies houses to acquire—often three-level “triple-deckers,” which Mr. Smith says can accommodate three separate families—it doesn’t always have the cash in hand to make the purchase quickly. The properties sometimes go to developers who gentrify the neighborhood rather than make it affordable to the families who are already there.

The money from the college will allow the CDC to leverage funds from other sources by ensuring liquidity and showing that it has a strong institutional partner with confidence in its ability to pull off a big project, Mr. Smith says.

Only about 15 percent of the houses that the CDC renovates are sold; the rest are rented to qualifying families at a reduced rate, currently about $800 per month rather than the market rate of $1,250. The homes remain in the affordable-housing program for 30 years.

John M. Sweeney, the college’s senior vice president for finance and business, says the Board of Trustees had been searching for a way to stabilize the neighborhood and “improve the approaches to the campus.” Making the gift directly to the CDC seemed the most efficient way to accomplish that, he says.

Providence College is in the middle of a $140-million comprehensive campaign, and Mr. Sweeney says it found the $750,000 in unrestricted donations and pledges to multiyear projects that had already been financed.

He says the college developed trust in the Smith Hill Community Development Corporation largely through the efforts of Keith Morton, a professor of public and community service at Providence. Most recently, students at the college worked with the CDC and the neighborhood to open a free-trade coffee shop, Common Grounds Cafe, that employs both work-study students and local residents. It has become a meeting place for the campus and the neighborhood.

Mr. Morton shrugs off the words of praise, instead attributing the neighborhood’s recent momentum to an alignment of circumstances and individuals, like the college’s president, the Rev. Brian J. Shanley, who have been receptive to ideas.

“You’ve got a lot of people who want to do the right thing, but they’re working in silos,” Mr. Morton says. “The role that I play is trying to connect some of those pieces,” by introducing people and organizations. “The goal is to get people to the table with each other.”

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