City of colleges takes heat for proposed student housing ban

AP News
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Posted: Sep 16, 2015 1:07 PM

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Each fall, thousands of students flock to the many colleges in this modestly sized city, filling up its large old homes and, sometimes, holding loud parties. Now a proposal to keep many of those students from populating a couple of neighborhoods has drawn the ire of civil liberties advocates.

Providence officials are now considering a zoning law that would limit the expansion of student housing in two neighborhoods near Providence College, a private Roman Catholic university, and Rhode Island College, a public institution. Specifically, it would prohibit more than three college students from living in a single-family home.

Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan, who represents and lives in the Elmhurst neighborhood near Providence College, introduced the legislation at the request of neighbors who were, she said, "completely and totally frustrated with the partying."

A wild party Sept. 5, part of an annual tradition at Providence College in which students celebrate the new academic year, resulted in dozens of arrests. The celebration has grown over the years to include students from the city's other schools, which include the Ivy League's Brown University and the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design.

The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is urging the city to reject the ordinance, saying it discriminates against students and tarnishes the city's reputation as a host to colleges.

"It inappropriately singles out students for disparate treatment and will make it much harder for students to find appropriate housing, which is important," said Steven Brown, executive director of the state ACLU chapter.

In addition to the partying, residents worry landlords are buying all the single-family homes in the area to rent them to students, Ryan said.

"Those houses are getting snatched up, and they're creating mini-dormitories," she said.

But landlords who rent properties in the area say they've actually improved the neighborhood by remodeling once-vacant homes, leading to increased property values.

"Investors who have put over $2 million in rehab in that neighborhood have now been vilified and targeted, along with the students," said Robert D'Amico, a Providence attorney who owns several rental properties in Elmhurst.

D'Amico, who primarily rents to students, said the ordinance doesn't make sense.

"There is no direct correlation between the students living in single-family homes and the number of students roaming around the area and having 'red cup' parties," he said.

It's unclear how exactly the ban in Providence would be enforced, but some city council members have suggested that landlords who rent to students would need a special license, and that their student homes would be subject to annual inspections. Landlords who violate the ordinance could be fined.

Existing ordinances in Providence and Narragansett, home to a campus of the University of Rhode Island, allow police to put orange stickers on so-called "party houses," alerting landlords and their tenants that they'll be fined if police return because of a disturbance.

The ordinance would not affect existing leases. It passed an initial vote on Sept. 4 and must pass a second vote, scheduled for Thursday, before heading to the office of Mayor Jorge Elorza, who hasn't said whether he'll sign it.