NARRAGANSETT – With the Town of Narragansett pursuing a new law that would limit the number of college students who can occupy a dwelling together, resistance to the proposal is mounting from the University of Rhode Island (URI), students who attend the university and some members of the public. The consideration of the new legislation by the town, home to many off-campus students during the academic year, comes as URI announced it was reducing its on-campus housing capacity in 2020-21 by nearly a third due to COVID-19.
If passed, many fear the town’s new measure will disenfranchise students desperately seeking housing for the school year in the midst of a pandemic. On the other side, some Narragansett residents have petitioned the town for decades to decrease the amount of unruly behavior in local neighborhoods, though the town has been mostly powerless to act on this request due to a 1994 Rhode Island Superior Court decision, a ruling which was recently reversed by the Rhode Island Supreme Court.
“URI students are now searching desperately for housing,” said Jay Rumas, a URI student and President of the URI American Civil Liberties Union. “As you know, Narragansett plays a huge role in the off-campus population. The housing market is already strained as it is, with close to 10 groups bidding for every listing I have observed, and this will further throttle the housing market. If you will not consider scrapping this, I at least urge you to consider delaying it or the implementation of it because we live in a very, very uncertain time and right now, there are thousands of students that might not get housing.”
Last month, the Narragansett Town Council unanimously voted to model new local legislation on a Providence law that restricted more than three college students from living in single-family, non-owner-occupied dwellings together. The Providence law, which applies only to certain neighborhoods in the vicinity of Rhode Island College and Providence College, was passed in 2015 in an effort to address unruly behavior and the conversion of single-family homes to rentals housing many students for the academic year, and was recently upheld by the Rhode Island Supreme Court after a challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island (RIACLU).
The Town of Narragansett, meanwhile, had elected to wait and see the outcome of the Providence case after trying and failing to pass similar legislation for decades. 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 unconstitutional, 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.
However, the recent Rhode Island Supreme Court decision in Federal Hill Capital v. City of Providence, which was critical of the 1994 DiStefano v. Haxton ruling, upheld that the City of Providence was not violating students’ constitutional rights and was acting in line with its 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.” Wrote Rhode Island State Supreme Court Justice Francis Flaherty in the May 27 decision. “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.”
Narragansett, for decades, has experienced a similar clash of cultures between families seeking quality of life in the seaside community and college students who call the town home for the academic year. Some residents have frequently voiced frustration as neighborhoods like Eastward Look and Bonnet Shores transformed to accommodate the emerging student demographic, and property once reserved for summer vacationers or families began being occupied by students. Complaints of student behavior range from loud parties to disorderly conduct to public urination to breaking and entering. The Narragansett Police Department (NPD) 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 unsuccessful 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.”
“There’s been a lot of degradation in these neighborhoods for many years,” said resident Stephen Ferrandi. “I think that Providence did this to make sure they still had some single-family neighborhoods left.”
“It’s a shame when you have these people who live at their houses and work so hard all their life to live in these beautiful houses, and their views are taken away from them, their peace is taken away from them,” said resident Al Alba. “It really is a travesty.”
For URI students, however, Narragansett’s consideration of a new law modeled on the Providence legislation could not come at a worse time. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, URI recently announced it would be reducing on-campus housing capacity from the planned 6,200 students down to 4,400 students. Many fear this influx of 1,800 students now seeking off-campus housing opportunities, combined with the pending ordinance in Narragansett, would result in a number of college students finding no place to live come September.
“We recognize that, in light of the R.I. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Federal Hill Capital v. City of Providence, a proposal to limit the number of students that can reside together would likely be found facially constitutional this time around,” wrote RI ACLU Executive Director Steven Brown in a recent letter to the Narragansett Planning Board. “But leaving aside whether such an ordinance would survive a legal challenge on an ‘as applied’ basis, we believe its adoption is simply bad public policy. The timing of it – in the middle of a pandemic where students must scramble to find affordable housing and when housing stability is particularly vital – makes it even worse.”
With dwellings in Narragansett currently rented out to four, five, six and sometimes as many as eight college students at a time, a new proposed law restricting that number to three would create increased demand for more housing.
“I’m very concerned about the cost of housing for students increasing at this time,” said Allie Hunt, a resident. “I think when you take a home and you have four students that are going to be splitting the rent, and now it has to be three students, the parents have to be burdened with the extra cost for that expense. It’s going to be hard right now. We’re in the middle of a health and economic crisis. It seems like a very insensitive time to do something that’s going to increase the cost of housing for students.”
In a July 1 letter to the town, URI President David M. Dooley and Vice President for Student Affairs Kathy M. Collins were critical of Narragansett’s recent decision and urged town officials to reconsider.
“We are surprised by the abrupt decisions made by the Narragansett Town Council that target our students who rent homes in the local community,” wrote Dooley and Collins. “The town council ignores the issues surrounding the thousands of summer renters who vacation in the seaside town, but rather focuses entirely on our students, who contribute much needed revenue and vitality to our local communities. We can only hope that they will continue to call Rhode Island home after graduation, as they add their incredible minds and talents to our Rhode Island workforce.”
“We strongly believe that your proposed exclusionary zoning will have a negative impact on your community and our state,” the letter continues. “We request that the current zoning regulations remain in place as we navigate the global health crisis, the effects of 400-plus years of racial injustice and the economic crisis in Rhode Island and the nation.” “We believe that working together as neighbors to solve a problem is the correct path. Working as adversaries sows division and is a poor example to the young people we serve.”
While some residents have argued that students do not have to live in Narragansett, as the University is located in Kingston, 85 percent of the listings in URI’s off-campus housing database are located in Narragansett. The town’s unique housing opportunities formed over decades of renting to students, opportunities not shared in the housing stock of other nearby communities.
“Narragansett is, and has always been, one of the largest sources of housing for URI students,” said Rumas. “This has been to the benefit of both students and the local economy, which is largely geared towards summer tourism and is kept thriving by year-long student residents.”
Rumas added that Narragansett passing a new law at such a time was “predatory.”
“It’s the impact of thousands of people in our neighborhoods,” said resident Paul Zonfrillo. “It’s not our responsibility to house URI students. To hear that one gentleman say that this is predatory is pretty ironic, because I have to tell you the residents feel like it’s been predatory on us for decades.”
Some in town have criticized the university, claiming URI has turned a blind eye to student behavior off-campus and calling on college officials to create more on-campus housing.
“I think the students face some unique problems this year,” said Harry Schofield, a Narragansett resident. “But the Rhode Island Supreme Court just concluded that there’s nothing predatory [in limiting the number of students occupying dwellings]. This is not a predatory thing. This town has been after URI to help. Basically, URI has done nothing for the neighborhoods in this town.”
In their letter to the town, Dooley and Collins addressed this, stating the URI Student Code of Conduct applies to off-campus behavior as well. According to the letter, in 2019-20, the University had a total of 164 conduct cases from Narragansett, with all but 10 of them being referred by NPD.
“Each case is reviewed by our conduct team and taken very seriously,” wrote Dooley and Collins. “Outcomes of these cases ranged from suspension to disciplinary probation to parental notification. We take these matters seriously and work closely with [NPD] Chief Sean Corrigan and his team to address off-campus behavior.”
Last year, the university added 500 on-campus beds to “accommodate the increasing demand from students to live on campus during their entire time at URI.”
While no official policy is yet in place, Narragansett Assistant Town Solicitor Andrew Berg said violations of the new law, if passed, could carry a penalty as steep as $500 per day. A petition posted on change.org calling on the town to stop consideration of the new law has garnered near 9,000 signatures as of this writing.
In addition to voicing concerns over the potential lack of housing during the pandemic, critics of a new law in Narragansett have argued that students contribute heavily to the local economy during the winter months and that the town has done nothing to address similar behavior by summer vacationers and tourists renting houses in the summertime. Some residents and proponents of a rule change state the town has waited for such legislation for decades and are fed up with sacrificing quality of life in neighborhoods overrun by rowdy college students.
Despite the conflict, residents, students and university officials alike have commented that the situation provides an opportunity for the town and URI to strengthen their relationship and work together to resolve the issue in a way that is satisfactory for all parties. Currently, the Narragansett Planning Board is scheduled to deliberate the topic in a public hearing and provide a recommendation to the town council, which will then host a public hearing and vote on any new law to be passed. Originally scheduled to take place on Wednesday, July 1, the planning board cancelled the meeting while it was being held virtually over the communications platform Zoom, as the technology only allowed for 100 participants in the meeting, and many virtual attendees, mostly students, were denied access.
The meeting has been rescheduled for Thursday, July 9, which will occur after the Narragansett Times has gone to press for its Friday, July 10 edition.