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Providence vs. The Economic Crisis

For groups such as our own, the usual desire is to focus on a specific set of topics, in a specific area, so as to achieve a specific goal. We aim to be optimistic with our expectations, positive with our critiques, and to avoid sounding overly negative about anything, so as to keep dialogue as open as possible. Unfortunately, sometimes there are factors that enter the equation that would never normally have to be considered. I personally believe that to say that these are such times would be a grave understatement, so I’d like to open a dialogue concerning the balance between our goals, and realistic expectations in the current global situation.

In light of this past week’s news of the bailout of Citigroup, which is truly a giant in the financial world, we must consider the possibility of an absolute meltdown of international banking and the trickle-down effects that this total seizure of liquidity entails. With such dire prospects properly understood, we must look to the solutions that ultimately make up the core goal of groups such as GC:PVD: true sustainability and independence.

Although we would all like to hope for a stable market in which we could see smarter development, mass-transit upgrades, and the like, we must also face the possibility of having to concert our energies and resources towards merely maintaining what we already have. When considering the factors that are essential to our quality of life, we must start from the very basics, check off what we know to be secured, and look more closely at the variables. At the very core, we have to look at the ability to shelter, transport, and feed ourselves.

With early consequences of this crisis creating an increasingly disproportionate ratio of home owners to renters, what we may inevitably be facing is a legal-housing shortage in the midst of rampant property vacancies. Many Providence-area home owners own multi-unit houses, and many of these homes (especially those purchased during the housing market bubble) have mortgages that exceed their owners’ incomes. This makes the owners reliant on the renters that fill their units to be able to make their monthly payment. With an abundance of renters, there should be no lack of qualified candidates with reliable incomes to secure these properties. However, there are many variables with respect to a renter’s life situation in the current economic crisis. Increasing job loss has been an incredibly painful issue for Rhode Island, but it’s consistency on the global scale belies the fact that it is not a phenomenon that will soon ease or reverse itself. This job loss being an acceptable likelihood, we must anticipate scenarios where renters or owners that may lose their employment in the near future will effect the reliability of these mortgage payments. This may result in more foreclosures that aren’t the direct fault of the owners, evictions that stem from the foreclosure of a property, or frustration with the necessary time frames for eviction of renters. These issues currently are symptoms of the greater problems at hand, but may have to be dealt with more frequently in the near future. City officials and citizens alike would be wise to begin considering longer-term solutions.

Another factor in regards to sheltering ourselves is our ability to keep warm. While this may not become a crisis-level problem during this coming winter, we would be wise to utilize this coming year to prepare local energy solutions, in the event of a long-term economic downturn. It is already a daunting task for many Rhode Islanders to keep warm in the winter, I would assume that it will be no easier if the potential hyper-inflation of the U.S. dollar (stemming from massive printing of currency to fund the bailouts) raises the costs of energy to the point where heating a home could simply become too expensive. So while energy policy is not within the usual scope of our group’s mission, I feel that it has become urgent that the state as a whole address this issue and act accordingly within the coming year. To not do so could likely result in massive numbers of homes going without adequate heat. This not only harms our citizens, but also further damages our housing stock.

I personally believe that the energy issue is a matter of great importance for an additional reason: it has a great effect on one of the basics that I feel is at the core of our priorities, our ability to transport ourselves from one place to another. I raise this as a concern for various reasons. Although gas prices have dipped in response to the global scenario, we would be foolish to assume that they will remain at these levels for very long. It is also true that despite Rhode Island’s relatively low ratio of sprawl in comparison to many other metropolitan areas, there is enough to become a matter of great significance in the face of rising costs of living. While we are blessed to have a transit system that, at very least, functions on a state-wide level, we have had better and could lose even more of what we do have. In the recent past, RIPTA has seen reductions in service while the demand for its service has risen. This is partially due to its funding structure, and partially due its being run more as a business than a public service. RIPTA’s funding has been largely tied to a state gas tax, this ensures that it will inevitably malfunction as an alternative to automobile transportation because it is reliant on a certain level of gasoline sales being maintained. This further renders us dependent on the kind graces of OPEC for the sustainability of our system.

A large part of a properly functioning job market is the ability of its citizens to reliably get to and from work. Assuming that our economic situation will worsen before it improves, we must understand that our ability to thrive depends on our ability to maintain a constant mode of transportation for our citizens. While the hopes of having a robust transit system running entirely on locally-produced energy seems a distant goal at this moment, the incoming presidential administration has promised federal funds for both transit upgrades and for renewable energy projects. If we are going to begin creating the infrastructure to catapult ourselves out of this rut, not to mention create the infrastructure-related jobs that will sustain us through what we face, we must begin by working feverishly during this coming year to propose and approve plans so as to be the first in line for these funds. To begin, we must ensure that we can maintain what we DO have. There are many approaches to this, ranging from restructuring RIPTA’s financing, to encouraging our senators to push for a federal property-swap program, so as to allow our suburban citizens to trade their way into vacant properties that lie along transit routes.

Then we come to the ability to feed ourselves. As much as it may sound like a doomsday scenario, we have already begun to see the rumblings of what could become a global food crisis. It had been manageable before, but now, with many farms unable to secure the loans that they annually rely on for planting their crops, we are compromising the very source of the food chain while energy and transportation costs have already contributed to making these goods more expensive. While this won’t necessarily cripple our initial stage in the food supply, the prices of staples could become dramatically unstable if coupled with continuously rising demand and the instability of the dollar as an international reserve currency. This poses a threat to us at home just as much as to the nations that we commonly associate with food shortages. If the previously mentioned hyper-inflation DOES manifest in the coming year, we could find ourselves in an entirely opposite end of the spectrum with regards to the affordability of food. Luckily for us, we have institutions such as Southside Community Land Trust and The Providence Urban Agriculture Task Force , not to mention countless other neighborhood farms and gardens in the city, that have already proven the potential of a reliable supply of local produce. Even though it is late November and far from planting time, we could utilize this time to collaborate and build upon these practices in anticipation of the coming year’s crops. Building this sort of practice in Providence could not only soften the blow of what may come, but it could also lend strength to the momentum of reclaiming our rural areas for their proper purposes and reversing the trend of suburban development. If we are able to create this momentum, it would reduce the demand for rural land, and thus reduce the property taxes. This would make the prospect of farming in this state more economically viable than it has become in the past few decades. Although this would naturally take a bit of time, I cannot stress enough the amount that we are capable of accomplishing in the coming year if we are able to create a collaborative effort in the city.

As a city-state, we were founded on true independence and liberty, we’ve seen the peaks of prosperity, we’ve seen our fortunes shrink, and we’ve seen art and innovation grow from the remains, spurring a renaissance that is threatened to be cut short by global circumstances. If we maintain our momentum, despite our current adversity, we may find ourselves in a better position a few years down the line than we might have found ourselves otherwise. However, that requires an opening up of this dialogue to include any and, hopefully, all of our citizens. In the end, there are countless manners of approaching what lies before us, regardless of whether or not we all agree on what it is that lies before us. If my assessment of our situation seems too dire, or the solutions unrealistic, I am fully ready to accept them as such, and hope that valid counterpoints would be brought to light with the same good intentions. What I ultimately have faith in, is the fact that our size and density, coupled with our collective wits and character, gives us all of the tools that we need to set an example on how to handle this global crisis.

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