Student-oriented housing limit in Narragansett being contested

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island ACLU filed a brief Tuesday at Narragansett Municipal Court contesting a housing ordinance approved last year in the town that limits un-related people living in a single-family home to no more than four. But Narragansett town councilors have responded the ordinance doesn’t violate any discrimination doctrines, and merely reinforces a state law already on the books.

12 people and businesses are charged with violating the ordinance, the ACLU said; their court brief called for the criminal charges to be dismissed.

The ACLU local chapter alleges that the ordinance is aimed at cracking down on University of Rhode Island students. The town has had some reports in recent years of unruly, partying behavior where neighbors have felt disrupted, and the town has already adopted an “orange sticker” policy where police can plaster a warning on the front door of a home after one incident.

The ACLU claims the limiting of residents violates equal protection rights.

A similar ordinance was passed last year in Providence, and the ACLU is contesting that one as well.

In a statement, Town Manager James Manni said he believed the law is “lawful and appropriately directed.” Manni continued, “it is not accurate to state that the ordinance simply prevents more than four unrelated people from cohabitation,” he said. “If a property owner desires to rent to more than four people, he or she may do so once the structure meets the building safety requirements for such a use. The primary improvement many landlords must make to comply with the regulations that govern such use is to install sprinklers. The landlord group represented by the ACLU desires to rent single family dwellings to large groups of individuals without having to maintain such safety features.”

Council member Michael Moretti said in a separate statement he believes the ordinance will stand: “Based on my research, most state constitutions, federal courts and the Supreme Court do not grant students protected class status as they are not ordinarily discriminated against. Also, as far as I can see, the courts have not provided students with a fundamental right to living in housing designed for single family units – we have an ordinance that provides for no more than 4 unrelated people living in a single-family dwelling, which in my opinion is fair and equitable based on the original intent of the neighborhood’s design.”

Manni also pointed to Rhode Island General Law section 45-24-31, which defines a household: “An individual household shall consist of any one of the following: (i) A family, which may also include servants and employees living with the family; or (ii) A person or group of unrelated persons living together. The maximum number may be set by local ordinance, but this maximum shall not be less than four (4).”