Zachary Malinowski has an article that’s definitely worth reading in today’s Providence Journal, if only as (yet another) case study of the way public entities in Rhode Island conduct their business. Basically, using affordable housing as its hook, RI Housing has been buying properties well over their values and passing them along to Stop Wasting Abandoned Property (SWAP), a Providence-based low-and-moderate-income housing non-profit.
It paid $250,000 for one vacant lot in 2008 that the previous owner, Angel L. Figueroa, had purchased for just $40,000 in 2002. It paid $900,000 for another vacant lot in 2007 that the previous owner — Maplewood Estates, a company run by David A. Loffredo at the address of Rt. 44 Auto Mall in Smithfield — had bought in 2004 for a dollar amount that is not (for some reason) disclosed in city records.
The “full Rhode Island” comes with the connections. The executive director of SWAP, Carla DeStefano, is married to the executive director of RI Housing, Richard Godfrey. Naturally, the state Ethics Commission has blessed this relationship provided Godfrey recuses from projects on which the two organizations work together.
For her part, DeStefano made $92,474 in 2011, according to her organization’s 990 form. That year, SWAP received $985,784 in public “gifts, grants, contributions, and membership fees.” According to the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s RIOpenGov.org vendor payments module, SWAP has received an average of $6,375 in legislative grants from the state General Assembly every year for the past four years. This fiscal year, it’s slated to get another $4,815. (These amounts appear to be through the “community service” grants that aren’t sponsored by individual legislators.)
When it comes to Godfrey, information isn’t quite so easy to come by. RI Housing is a quasi-public corporation, but its payroll isn’t provided along with the state’s. From year to year, the state gives grants to the agency, with an unusually high $28.3 million in 2011, but there’s no clear line item, and the governor’s proposed budget doesn’t provide very much detail about the agency’s revenue or expenditures.
Meanwhile, the $250,000 property mentioned above doesn’t look like it’s going to become affordable housing at all. Rather, the Providence Redevelopment Agency, part of city government, is proposing to trade the property for a different parcel elsewhere in town, so that it can be made into a parking lot for “a culinary arts center, restaurant and apartment building” across the street. And wouldn’t you know (emphasis added):
James V. DeRentis serves as chairman of the Rhode Island Housing board of commissioners and [also the chairman of the board of the ]Providence Redevelopment Agency. He was appointed to the housing board post by Governor Chafee and had previously had a position on SWAP’s governing board.
DeRentis, who worked on Chafee’s gubernatorial campaign in 2010, is married to Brett Smiley, a Democratic candidate for mayor of Providence.
Hey, it’s entirely possible all these odd deals and incestuous relationships are entirely on the up and up. It’s difficult to see, however, how the people of Rhode Island can have any confidence in that possibility.
Insiders like to suggest that Rhode Island’s size makes tight-knit relationships inevitable. It’d probably be more accurate to say that giving government agencies broad authority and massive budgets is what makes suspicious deals inevitable.