PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A controversial proposal to limit how many college students can live together in Providence got another hearing Wednesday night, though the plan has been significantly scaled back to affect far fewer properties.
Councilwoman Helen Anthony’s original proposal would have restricted more than three college students from living together in any non-owner occupied apartment in multifamily homes across Providence, prompting students to come out in droves to push back.
A top concern was the affordability crisis in the city, which students claim requires them to live with several roommates in order to afford housing.
Anthony has now drastically cut back the proposal, which was heard by the Ordinance Committee Wednesday.
“After hearing the testimony at the last public hearing, I am narrowing it significantly,” Anthony told 12 News.
The new proposal would only prohibit three or more students from living together in two residential zones in the city, known as R-1 and R-1A, which mainly contain single-family homes.
The city already bans more than three students from living together in single-family homes, so the new proposal would only impact 1,800 “non-conforming” multifamily homes in those districts, Anthony said. She argued the proposal is closing a loophole in the existing law.
The original proposal would have impacted 29,000 homes across the city.
The R-1 and R-1A zones are mostly located on the East Side and north end of the city, near both Brown University and Providence College.
The amended ordinance would also only apply to undergraduate students, a change from the original proposal.
Anthony said her intent is to target landlords who are buying up properties and chopping them up into rooms they rent out to students, limiting available housing for families and young professionals.
“I’m not targeting students,” Anthony said. “But I am looking at the fact that we have residential dwellings that are converted into student dorms.”
But opponents argue the proposal will have the opposite effect. If students can’t live with more than three per unit, they could take up more apartments in the city, not fewer.
“Nothing has changed in the past six months to alleviate the concerns we raised then: this ordinance will not be effective in addressing the problem it is purportedly designed
to address; it will have a particularly adverse impact on lower-income students; it radiates an
antagonism towards a cohort of residents that make up a vibrant and vital part of the city’s environment and character; it ignores the plight that some students will face in light of the city’s well-recognized and severe housing shortage,” said Steven Brown, the executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, in written testimony.
He also opposes a measure that could notify colleges if their off-campus students are violating the ordinance.
In addition to college students who testified against the ordinance, landlords also spoke out.
“I have several four-bedroom apartments and have consistently had demand from 4 students,” wrote Vito Arminio, a Federal Hill landlord, in testimony to the council. “To suddenly restrict this would be a great disservice, making rent more unaffordable for them.”
Others applauded the effort, pointing to noise issues, excessive trash and too many parked cars at properties that used to house much fewer people.
“The near constant noise, frequent parties, overflowing garbage and neglected maintenance begin to have a real impact on quality of life for all residents,” Nina Markov told the councilors at Wednesday’s hearing.
“I watched as a neighbor’s exquisitely restored home was carved into multiple units,” wrote Deborah Moxham in testimony about the ordinance. “Her chandeliered dining room is now a bedroom for one of twelve students, paying $1,300 apiece.”
Mayor Brett Smiley said he has not yet taken a position on the ordinance. But he said the issues of noise and trash can be addressed through the city enforcing existing ordinances on property owners.
“It’s still not okay, if it’s three or 10 students living in a house, to have loud parties in violation of our noise ordinance,” Smiley said. “It’s not okay to have overflowing dumpsters and not properly maintaining garbage.”
The debate over limiting college student housing in Providence is not new. The City Council passed an ordinance in 2015 that restricted more than three college students from living in a single-family home that is not owner-occupied.
Supporters of the law said landlords were buying up homes and turning them into students housing, causing noise issues in neighborhoods and limiting housing options for families.
Opponents sued, but the R.I. Supreme Court upheld the ordinance in 2020.
Those on both sides of the issue have said colleges should be doing more to house their students on campus.
Both Providence College and Brown University requires undergraduates to live on campus for a certain period of time. (Neither institution testified on the ordinance Wednesday.)
Steven Maurano, a spokesperson for Providence college, says about 750 to 800 undergraduates — mostly seniors — live off campus.
Brian Clark, a spokesperson for Brown, did not immediately say how many undergraduate students live off campus, but said the “vast majority” live on campus. He said the university is taking steps “to alleviate the impact of off-campus student residences on local neighborhoods and housing markets.”
Those moves include building more dorms, including the new residence hall under construction on Brook Street, which will house 350 students. Clark said Brown also added 162 beds in the past year for undergraduates, in addition to 270 for graduate and medical students by purchasing the River House apartment building.
Steph Machado (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.