NARRAGANSETT – The town council is re-examining a new law that would prohibit more than three college students from living together in local rental properties — a multi-faceted, decades-long issue that Narragansett has struggled with. 

The discussion has not yet materialized in any votes or action from the council, though the body will ultimately have to make a decision to either amend the existing ordinance, leave it be or construct a new law.

Under the previous council, the town approved a new measure last year that restricts more than three college students from renting a house together, despite the Narragansett Planning Board unanimously recommending the ordinance’s rejection, that would go into effect this September. The town, which has tried to enact similar laws in the past unsuccessfully, did so on the heels of a Rhode Island Supreme Court ruling that upheld a 2015 ordinance from the City of Providence which limited the number of students living together in rental properties in certain neighborhoods. At the same time, the nearby University of Rhode Island (URI) cut student housing capacity on its campus by about a third to comply with restrictions around the COVID-19 pandemic, creating the need for students to find housing for the academic year elsewhere.

On one side of the debate are some residents and families that find student rentals problematic in contributing to local rowdiness, parties and behavioral issues, as well as swallowing up the local housing stock and making it difficult for full-time residency in Narragansett. On the either side are URI students and the landlords and property owners who rent dwellings to them.    

“There’s the behavior side which is the noise issues, partying, that sort of thing. And then there’s the other side which is can anyone afford to live in Narragansett year-round anymore?” began town council president Jesse Pugh at a recent council workshop on the subject. “That is the side effect of college rentals. That’s the other side of it, and that’s the side I’m focused on. I’m not looking at this as a way to resolve nuisance issues. If that was it, you would just put a lot of money toward enforcement and then you could do it. And also — putting three or four students in a house instead of six, is that really going to cut down on parties? Probably not…I’m really looking at this as an affordable housing issue.”

Pugh pointed out that rental property owners can purchase a home in Narragansett, rent it to URI students for a number of years, pay off the mortgage with the money earned from renting and then retire in the home. The town council president said the body had received a number of emails that reflected this strategy.

“You’re going to have a town that’s literally retirement or college kids,” he said. “That’s it. There’s nothing wrong with either of those groups, but you want diversity.”

Councilors have weighed the recently passed three-student ordinance against an existing four-unrelated ordinance that would instead restrict rental dwellings from being occupied by no more than four unrelated individuals. In 2017, a Narragansett Municipal Court judge deemed the four-unrelated ordinance unconstitutional, making enforcement of the law impossible. However, in light of the ruling on the Providence ordinance from the state’s highest court, Narragansett town solicitors believe that both the new three-student and the old four-unrelated ordinance would be legal.

Resident Paul Zonfrillo, who was representing a local neighborhood association, agreed with Pugh.

“What if somebody told you that it was possible to make 16 percent a year as a safe investment on your house, guaranteed, 100 percent. URI’s not going anywhere is it? Investors are being promised insane returns with a beautiful investment and nothing has stopped them in the last 30 years.”

Joe Lembo, representing Narragansett 2100, an organization of local landlords and property owners that advocate for strong relationships between college students and the local community, shared statistics from the Narragansett Police Department showing that offenses around rowdy college student behavior had been steadily decreasing in recent years.

“Limiting the number of students that can live in a house will not make partygoers drink less or respect their neighbors more.” he said. “But when limits are placed on the number of students living in one house, do we realize that more rental housing will develop to meet the demand? In this sense, the ordinance becomes counterproductive.”

Members of the public representing local neighborhood associations, which have championed the three-student ordinance as a means to curb unruly behavior, said the town has struggled with the issue for decades and wanted to see action taken to preserve property for families and full-time residents.

“This has been a very long road for the neighborhoods,” said Steven Ferrandi. “Everything that’s been tried hasn’t worked…The critical thing is that what we’re seeing today is not a normality. This has been a one-sided road for quite a long time…Eastward Look really doesn’t have a lot of full-time people left In it…This is about an assault on the properties. There’s not a lot of families here…we’ve got single-family neighborhoods that weren’t built for this kind of traffic, all these extra bedrooms.”

Harry Schofield agreed, noting that with the growth of rental properties in recent years, two thirds of the town’s housing stock would become rented out to students or summer tourists in 20 years.

“That level of unchecked growth is not in compliance with the comprehensive plan,” he said.

Jay Rumas, who represents the URI chapter of the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union — which opposed the passage of the three-student ordinance last year — took issue with this sentiment.

“I think there’s a lot of fear mongering that rentals will take over all the residential housing,” he said. “That’s just not what the data is showing. Lowering the total number of housing units will just lead to more housing being required to accommodate these students.”

After public testimony on the subject last week, council members weighed in, with some refusing to commit to either a three-student or four-unrelated ordinance and others showing support for the existing law as it stands now.

“We had decided on the four-unrelated,” said council president pro tem Susan Cicilline Buonanno. “I was OK with that. We’ve put on a lot of ordinances over my tenure – the four-unrelated, response recovery, open container — we’ve done a lot to improve the quality. We absolutely have more to do. But I do have a problem with the three-student because I think it’s just too limiting.”

“A lot of college towns have restrictions on the number of students per house,” said council member Ewa Dzwierzynski. “When I started looking at it, a lot of them are two, three students, some of them are four…I’ve seen Narragansett change.”

“I think we have an issue with houses that are too big for where they are both in terms of the size of their lots, in terms of the number of bedrooms and the terms of how they impact their community…” said council member Deb Kopech. “I have a concern with the fact that there are a lot of commercial ventures existing in residential zones.”

“Eastward Look is not coming back, it is a student community,” added council member Patrick Murray. “It’s not a family community. Those are the facts. It’s unfortunate but Rhode Island is expensive for a young family to live, most northeast states are. I’m OK with the three-student now...Narragansett has always been a tourist and college student town. By going to the three student, you’re pushing the rental units into those three-bedroom homes, driving up the price and making it less affordable for the families.”

Murray, who, along with Dzwierzynski, has begun talks with URI on the topic, said he wanted to create a plan to address the issue within 10 weeks and noted the existing law was fine in the meantime. Pugh advocated for keeping the existing three-student ordinance.

Throughout the debate, one component both sides agreed on was that enforcement would play a key role in seeing the town through to whatever direction it decided to take. According to Narragansett Assistant Town Solicitor Andy Berg, enforcement would primarily come from the town manager, the police department and the town building official.  

The meeting last week was a council workshop so no motion was proposed nor vote held.

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