NARRAGANSETT — For Harry Schofield, who has lived in Narragansett for 46 years, the problem with University of Rhode Island students renting in town isn’t about the big parties. And although the doors slamming late at night, the cars jamming local roads, and the music in the wee hours are a nuisance, the issue is broader, and simpler.
“I’m losing the most valuable thing I have in this neighborhood,” Schofield said. “My neighbors.”
Schofield, the chair of the Narragansett Pier Residents Association, speaks for some his neighbors when he says something has to change. Something did change last week, when the Town Council in Narragansett passed a law prohibiting more than three college students from living in any non-owner-occupied dwelling unit. The law doesn’t specifically target URI students, but the state university with a flagship campus just over the border in the village of Kingston, has a significant off-campus presence in Narragansett.
URI has had that presence since the its founding in 1892. But despite that long tenure in this seaside town, the issues are coming to a head: Critics say out of state investors are snapping up properties and converting single-family homes into off-books dormitories. That’s putting the dream of home ownership out of reach for people who want to do what Schofield has done: live here for decades.
“We’re not interested in demonizing kids,” Schofield said. “But we’re caught between a negligent university and greedy landlords.”
Meanwhile, the kids say they’re not certainly not demonic, the university says it’s not negligent, and the landlords say they’re not greedy.
“Everyone’s got this great vision that this is going to solve so many problems,” said Joe Lembo, who owns three properties in town. “But no one’s looking at how it’s actually going to be enforced.”
Lembo is the spokesman of a group called Narragansett 2100. The group advocates for landlords and tenants, and provides resources for them. It was named Narragansett 2100 because when it was founded in 2014, there were 2,100 rentals in town. There are now about 2,700, he said.
But that doesn’t mean there are 2,700 problem properties: Town and police statistics show that nuisance student rentals have gotten better over the years, in part thanks to groups like his, Lembo said. Homes with problems are only a tiny fraction of student rentals, he added The town, Lembo said, is unfairly scapegoating kids, and it’s particularly unfair because plenty of people in town only live there in the summer months.
The town, Lembo said, is unfairly scapegoating kids, and it’s particularly unfair because plenty of people in town only live there in the summer months.
“Some of these kids live here longer in a year than some of these residents who are complaining about the students,” Lembo said.
Lembo said local landlords are conferring about their legal options.
The law, which is modeled after one in Providence that withstood court scrutiny, will likely face legal challenges. It takes effect on passage, meaning kids who had already signed leases won’t have to leave, but will have problems renewing if there are more than three college students. The town has a standard violation ordinance, which calls for a $500 a day fine toward the property owner. The case would go to municipal court, so it would be up to a judge. The residents themselves wouldn’t be fined.
The Town Council has also directed the town to start enforcing a 2016 law banning more than four unrelated people from living in the same dwelling. Enforcement had been paused after a municipal judge found that limit unconstitutional. A Supreme Court ruling, though, found a similar ordinance in Providence constitutional, clearing the way for the town of Narragansett to start enforcing it, according to officials in Narragansett. They’ve already received a handful of complaints; it’s not being enforced on short-term rentals at this time, town leaders say.
Already, according to people in town, students were wary of living in Narragansett because of a previous version of the law that passed in August 2020. But when landlords filed suit, a judge stopped it from going into effect for technical reasons: A Town Council meeting held over Zoom concluded while people still had their virtual hands up, wanting to weigh in, but couldn’t do so.
The Town Council tried again last month, and this time, everyone got to have their say, during a marathon seven-hour meeting. Longtime residents complained their neighborhoods were changing before their eyes. Other residents, though, said the students were a welcome addition to their neighborhoods. Landlords said the situation was entirely unfair, even un-American.
The lengthy public debate speaks to larger issues playing out in Narragansett. Some residents say out-of-staters are buying up properties, driving prices through the roof and sometimes knocking down the roof and the whole building altogether to erect hulking fortresses in place of family-friendly ranches. It is not just student rentals, but also Airbnbs and other short-term rentals that critics say are turning Narragansett from a seaside paradise into an investor’s paradise.
“The bigger problem is the constant buying-up by out-of-staters,” said state Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, a Democrat who lives in nearby Wakefield and also owns a property in Narragansett. “They’re obviously driving prices up, and in some ways it’s a great thing, but it’s saturated the market to the point that normal people who live and work in Narragansett can’t afford to buy here anymore.”
One voice that has not been well represented throughout this issue is the students’ voice. Jay Rumas said he’s used to being quiet: A recent URI graduate who’s going out on a Fulbright scholarship to research populism in the Slovak Republic, Rumas lived in his last academic year on Orlando Drive, and mostly kept to himself. In fact, one non-student neighbor said they were surprised the students didn’t call the cops on them.
This is despite the fact that there were — gasp — four students in the house.
“The cursed four-person house, which I was told would open the gates of Hell,” Rumas said.
The law that Narragansett passed, Rumas believes, will just make the housing situation in Narragansett worse, making rentals more and more expensive. It’s NIMBYism — not in my backyard — at its worst, Rumas said.
“There’s no strategy here,” Rumas said. “There’s no research here. Just an impulsive move that will do more harm than good.”
The University of Rhode Island itself, meanwhile, formally opposed the law this summer.
“We understand the frustrations felt by some residents of Narragansett,” President David Dooley, who recently retired, and Kathy Collins, the vice president of student affairs, said in a July letter to the town. “Be assured we are committed to making a difference by working with you and ask that you delay this vote until after we have together navigated through these times.”
Council President Jesse Pugh says the issue really isn’t about college students at all. It’s about the ability of everyday people to find a home in Narragansett. And he says he has the research to back it up. According to U.S. Census data, Narragansett’s population dipped by 8.4 percent between 2010 and 2020. It was the only Rhode Island town to see such a significant decrease. Surely part of that is because the count was taken as of April 1, 2020, when colleges were shutting down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Counting students in off-campus housing is notoriously difficult. But it underscores the debate about what sort of town Narragansett wants to be.
“For me, the way I’ve approached this has been all about the ability for people to find a house here and live here year-round,” Pugh said in an interview. “It hasn’t been about bad college kids or parties. It’s too attractive for investors to buy properties here.”
According to Pugh’s statistics, while URI’s enrollment increased, the number of beds on campus did not increase as quickly, leaving a gap of 1,900. (URI formally opposed Narragansett’s law in July.) Meanwhile, the Narragansett public schools’ enrollment is dropping: Elementary school enrollment is down 30 percent in the last eight years.
Pugh voted in favor of the law; the vote, on Sept. 7, was three in favor with two opposed.
Susan Cicilline Buonanno was one of the ones who voted against it. She said a cap of three was too tight.
“We do need to do something to regulate it,” Cicilline Buonanno said of nuisance housing issues. “I just think three was really restrictive.”
It’s impossible to look at the issue of college students and Narragansett and not look back to 2014. That’s the year of the “riot,” when an end-of-year party turned into what residents described as a “war zone” of thrown bottles, property damage and other assorted drunken debauchery in the student-heavy Eastward Look neighborhood.
That is not what URI’s off-campus presence looks like now, but Steven Ferrandi, head of the local neighborhood association, said nuisances in that student-heavy area are common. A fight recently broke out in the middle of the street. Sometimes students will get abandoned by their friends outside his home. He has given rides back to campus.
Ferrandi resents the narrative from landlords that longtime residents need to “make cookies” for the students in an effort to build bridges across the generations. Ferrandi isn’t interested in building bridges to rowdy college students or investors transforming his neighborhood with what he considers Wall Street money.
“We can’t just be babysitters for URI students,” Ferrandi said. “It’s just not a neighborhood at that point.”