NARRAGANSETT – A controversial ordinance limiting local rentals to three students approved by the previous town council will be re-examined by the current body on Monday, Feb. 8 in back-to-back council workshops. The first session, scheduled for 6 p.m., will address litigation against the town in response to the law, which passed in September, and the second will revisit the ordinance as a whole.
“I think you probably have all gotten the same emails, people who are curious as to what’s happening with it, and I thought it would be in the best interest of the town to see where everybody stands, what we’re going to do about the enforcement, if there’s an appetite to talk about the four [student] versus three [student], and so the only way we could do that is publicly and talk about what we hope will happen in the next couple years,” said Narragansett Town Council President Pro Tem Susan Cicilline Buonanno.
The complicated issue is a matter of great local interest with many different groups of stakeholders, including residents seeking quality of life, students from the University of Rhode Island (URI) seeking housing in town, other residents in support of the student population, landlord associations and property owners. Specifically, the ordinance would prevent more than three college students from occupying a dwelling together unless the property is owner-occupied. Following much public debate, the ordinance was passed by the previous town council last fall after many local leases housing four students had already been signed, and the University decreased its on-campus housing capacity due to COVID-19. Due to the timing of the approval of the new law, the pending litigation pertaining to it and other factors, the town has not largely enforced the ordinance since its passage. A look at local rental properties shows monthly rent increasing or staying the same despite housing fewer students in order to make up the lost revenue. In some extreme cases, property owners were still advertising rental homes for four students despite the ordinance’s passage.
Many have called the issue an “identity crisis” for the Town of Narragansett – residents seeking quality of life oftentimes conflict with the large student population that inhabits local neighborhoods. Meanwhile, over the years, areas such as Eastward Look and Bonnet Shores have transformed to accommodate the emerging, younger demographic, sometimes via five, six or even seven and eight-bedroom rental properties that some have described as “de-facto dormitories.” Properties once reserved for summer vacationers or families began being occupied by students for the academic year.
The town attempted to address these issues decades ago, but were ultimately struck down in Rhode Island Superior Court in the 1990s when a similar law was deemed unconstitutional. In 2016, after lengthy study by an ad-hoc committee on the subject, the council again attempted to solve the problem with an ordinance that would limit rental dwellings to four unrelated persons, though that too was also ruled unconstitutional when challenged in Narragansett Municipal Court the same year.
The three-student law recently passed was given the greenlight by the previous council due to a 2020 Rhode Island Supreme Court decision that upheld a similar ordinance from the City of Providence, which was experiencing identical conflicts between residents and students in certain neighborhoods. This ordinance, which explicitly addresses three students, was mirrored by Narragansett in its final and approved iteration. Prior to its passage at the council level, the Narragansett Planning Board unanimously recommended the law’s rejection, instead largely championing the “four unrelated” law, which town solicitors had said would be upheld by that same Providence ruling.
Now, as the council prepares to take another look at one of the town’s most complex and controversial issues in recent years, residents who supported the three-student ordinance are asking that it remain on the books.
“We have two, properly-vetted ordinances which were adopted at public hearings on the books,” said resident Catherine Celeberto. “One of them was just affirmed by the Rhode Island Supreme Court. I can’t imagine why we would be discussing them. The only thing that needs to be done is that they need to be enforced.”