ACLU wants Providence student housing ordinance declared unconstitutional

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Lawyers representing the Rhode Island branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) asked a Superior Court judge Tuesday to halt the city from enforcing an ordinance that prohibits landlords from renting out single-family homes to more than three college students at a time.

The suit, filed by attorneys Jeffrey L. Levy and Charles D. Blackman of Levy & Blackman LLP, asks for the ordinance to be declared unconstitutional, arguing that the policy is an “intrusion into the rights of college and graduate students to choose with whom they wish to live, and the rights of property owners to rent their homes to tenants of their choice.”

“This ordinance goes too far by attempting to legislate who can live together in the same house,” Levy said in a statement. “Ultimately, it will have its most significant impact on students from low-income and middle-income families who can’t afford to cover a larger share of the rent in a single-family home.”

The City Council approved the changing in zoning in September as part of an attempt to curb student partying in the Elmhurst and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods that surround Providence College and Rhode Island College. Ward 5 Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan argued that single-family homes near the two schools were being purchased and rented to students rather than being owner-occupied.

“The change in intended use of single-family homes is undermining the character of our neighborhoods, diminishing the quality of life, and creating health and public safety concerns,” Ryan said at the time.

The ordinance did not apply to anyone with an existing lease at the time it was approved.

But critics, including some landlords, have said the ordinance was ripe for a lawsuit, arguing that the city shouldn’t be able to target college-aged residents.

Levy and Blackman said their suit was filed on behalf for four students from Johnson & Wales University and the owner of a single-family home in Elmhurst who rents to the students.

A spokesperson for the city did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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