Judge: Providence student housing ordinance is legal, but probably won’t work

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A Rhode Island judge has upheld a Providence ordinance that prohibits landlords from renting out single-family homes to more than three college students at a time.

However, the decision issued Monday by Superior Court Judge Maureen Keough also casts doubt on whether the 2015 ordinance will be effective in addressing the “sincere concern” residents of the neighborhoods around Providence College have regarding excessive student partying.

“While there is certainly no doubt that residents in and around the areas surrounding Providence College have experienced a change to their neighborhoods and communities, the court is skeptical that this amendment will serve its intended purpose and quell the ever-increasing disturbances,” Keough wrote in her decision.

The City Council approved the zoning change in 2015 as part of an attempt to curb student partying in the Mount Pleasant and Elmhurst neighborhoods that surround PC and Rhode Island College. Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan, a Democrat who represents the area, argued that single-family homes near the two schools were being purchased and rented to students rather than being owner-occupied.

The ordinance does not address multi-family properties in the neighborhood, which are predominately rented by college-aged students.

But the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit challenge the constitutionality of the ordinance, 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.”

In siding with Providence, Keough found that the city had “a valid government interest” in attempting to address neighborhood concerns and suggested it was under no obligation to present conclusive evidence that the zoning change would fix all of the problems it is designed to address.

Yet she also found that the city “has failed to articulate the evidence upon which it relies to support the conclusion that limiting the number of college students who can live together in a single-family home will correct the existing problems faced by families living in the designated areas.”

Keough suggested that four college students “who are busy pursing their studies would be far more stable and less likely to contribute to any disturbances than four twentysomethings who have decided to forgo enrollment in any one of the city’s universities and instead play in a band,” but the ordinance does not prohibit the musicians from living together.

Steven Brown, the executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU, said it is likely an appeal will be filed, but indicated the organization has not made a final decision.

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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