NARRAGANSETT - Seeking to end a decades-long culture clash between students renting property in town and residential family life, the Town of Narragansett will rely on a Providence law restricting the number of college students renting property together to shape its student rental policy. The Providence ordinance, which limited single-family, non owner-occupied dwellings to no more than three college students in certain neighborhoods, was recently upheld by the Rhode Island Supreme Court after being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island (RIACLU) on the basis of constitutionality.
“I think this is 25 years overdue,” said Narragansett Town Councilor Rick Lema. “That neighborhoods haven’t had what we can actually call quiet neighborhoods, being able to enjoy your neighborhood, it’s tough unless you live in one of those neighborhoods and see what goes on. I am very happy that the [RI] Supreme Court ruled the way they did.”
In 2015, in an effort to address rowdy student behavior in the Mount Pleasant and Elmhurst neighborhoods around Providence College and Rhode Island College, the Providence City Council approved a zoning amendment that would restrict more than three college students from occupying a single-family, non owner-occupied dwelling together. The RIACLU challenged the amendment in Rhode Island Superior Court shortly thereafter on the basis of constitutionality, arguing that the new ordinance discriminated against college students. In 2018, a Rhode Island Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the city, a decision which was upheld by the Rhode Island Supreme Court last month following an appeal by the RIACLU.
When introducing the zoning amendment, the Providence City Council also pointed to large portions of single-family housing stock in the affected neighborhoods being converted for student rental purposes rather than being owner occupied.
“This ordinance is about preserving the single-family housing stock and about public safety,” said Providence City Council Majority Leader Jo-Ann Ryan. “Single-family homes were not intended by zoning law to be used as mini-dorms. In a city where individuals and families are finding it harder and harder to find safe and affordable homes, it is imperative that we, as elected officials work to preserve our housing stock and to protect the residential character of our neighborhoods.”
Narragansett has faced a similar conflict for decades. With the nearby University of Rhode Island, and many of its students choosing to call Narragansett home for a large portion of their college careers, residential families and college students have clashed frequently. Neighborhoods like Eastward Look and Bonnet Shores transformed to accomodate the emerging, younger demographic. Property once reserved for summer vacationers or families began being occupied by students for the academic year. The Narragansett Police Department implemented an “orange sticker” system in 2009 to enforce noise ordinances and preserve quality of life, though that policy was also ultimately challenged in court and proved to be unsuccesful in stopping the behavior. The situation climaxed in 2014 when a college party in Eastward Look spiraled quickly out of control, with attendees throwing glass bottles and mailboxes and standing on rooftops. 18 URI students were arrested following the gathering, which then-Narragansett Town Manager Pamela Nolan described as a riot.
Many Narragansett residents have testified to the behavior they’ve witnessed from their student neighbors, from loud parties to public urination to breaking and entering. Others who oppose any zoning change have argued, similar to the Providence case, that targeting students explciitly with legislation would be discriminatory, that legislation limiting housing occupancy would do little to appease unruly beahvior and that an ordinance change would infringe on basic property rights. Critics of student-specific ordinances have also argued that younger people in general, not just students, are more prone to behavior that may conflict with the interests of residential families, but laws laid out specifically for college students would do nothing to address this issue.
In his 24-page decision on May 27, Rhode Island State Supreme Court Justice Francis Flaherty wrote that the 2015 Providence ordinance did not violate the constitutional rights of college students and was in line with the city’s interest in promoting public health.
“The legislative body may have initially considered more drastic measures, but decided to pass a less restrictive ordinance, is indicative of a democratic process—not a reason to find the result unconstitutional.” he said. “It is conceivable that the City Council could have determined that a large number of college students residing in single-family homes in residential areas is deleterious to the preservation of the character of these areas. It is further conceivable that the City Council could have concluded that, by restricting the number of college students that may rent single-family homes in these areas, some incremental benefit might be effectuated.”
In 2016, the Narragansett Town Council by unanimous vote amended Chapter 731, Section 2.2 of its code of ordinances to read “a person or group of unrelated persons living together, the maximum number shall be four persons.” However, after the RIACLU challenged the zoning change in court, representing a number of tenants and landlords who had been cited in violation of the new law, Narragansett Municipal Court Judge John DeCubellis Jr. struck down the ordinance amendment as unconsitutional, relying heavily on a 1994 Rhode Island Superior Court case, DiStefano v. Haxton, that addressed a similar Narragansett ordinance which restricted dwellings to being occupied by no more than three college students at a time. In DiStefano v. Haxton, Rhode Island Superior Court ruled against the town, and Judge DeCubellis, noting the 2016 zoning amendment’s similarity to the Narragansett ordinance DiStefano v. Haxton addressed, upheld that ruling, effectively bringing the town to a standstill in trying to enforce its new law.
“Unfortunately, the Town appears to lose sight of the difference between having the legislative authority to exercise its police powers, including limiting the maximum occupants in a single-family dwelling, and exercising those powers in a manner that would pass constitutional muster,” said Decubellis in his 2017 decision. “None of the defendants in either DiStefano or the pending cases have challenged the town’s ability to enact ordinances restricting the use and occupancy of properties within the town to protect the public health and general welfare of its residents. Instead, in both instances, the defendants’ constitutional challenges to the respective zoning amendments are predicated upon the Town’s restricting the number of occupants in single family households to no more than four (4) for only those persons not related by blood, marriage or other legal means.”
Since, the town has kept its eyes on the recently decided Providence case, hedging its bets that the state supreme court’s decision there will spell out Narragansett’s own fate. At a town council meeting last week, more than two weeks after the Providence case was decided, councilors were unanimous: mirror the upheld Providence ordinance, which explicitly prohibits more than three college students from living in a single-family, non owner-occupied dwelling.
“It’s already been proven, it’s already been to court,” said Lema. “If we go and mirror what Providence has done, I think we’re leaning in the right direction.”
“I was glad to see Providence win this case,” said councilor Jesse Pugh. “I think the town’s patience paid off. We finally won one without doing anything. I support this. I agree with Ricky in terms of modeling it after Providence, why try to get too complicated with it?”
“I don’t think this is going to be a silver bullet for the problems in town,” he continued. “I think there are other things that need to be done to keep attracting families and have real estate that’s available to families. But this is a tool to use, and enforcement can only go so far, but it’s something, so I support this and I’m with Ricky on the way to do it.”
“This town has been waiting a long time for the ability to take back our town,” said town council president pro tem Jill Lawler. “I’ve received a number of emails and phone calls asking for us to regain our town spirit, our town community once again.”
“We’ve waited very patiently for this,” echoed town council president Matthew Mannix. “And we’ve been really trapped by a Superior Court decision that was never appealed back in the early 90s. And it was a decision that was way out on the left wing. Way out of the mainstream.”
Only councilor Patrick Murray, a realtor who, despite voting along with his council colleagues in approval of the motion to instruct the town’s solicitors to mirror the Providence ordinance, had reservations.
“I think the frontline is URI controlling their students, not the town trying to control human behavior, that’s where the fight is,” he said. “Enforcement of this, I don’t think we have the staff to do it. It’s going to be a cluster.”
“This is going to severely restrict landlords’ potential for utilizing their property,” Murray added.