PROVIDENCE — Narragansett has long been a vacation destination. But something has changed in recent years, according to some of the people who live there year-round: Airbnb and other online platforms have made renting homes easier and more popular — and, while supporters say they help make ends meet and are generally well managed, critics say they’ve transformed their neighborhoods, mostly for the worse.
Narragansett’s Town Council on Tuesday night aired out a proposal to do something about it. If it became law — which is unlikely in its current form — it would be among the most restrictive local ordinances on short-term rentals in Rhode Island. It would bar people from renting out their homes for fewer than seven days (no more weekend rentals), mandate one off-street parking spot per bedroom with no on-street parking allowed, and require owners to have each tenant sign formal leases. Owners or managers would have to respond to complaints within 60 minutes.
A big part of the reason it probably won’t get through without revisions was on display Tuesday night, when the Town Council held a workshop on the proposal at Town Hall.
“If you move forward with this, you might as well put a sign on 95 that says, ‘Tourists not welcome,’” said George Nonis, a resident who’s president of the landlord group Narragansett 2100.
The people behind the “the most anti-business ordinance the town has ever seen,” Nonis said, were trying to make Narragansett elite, serving the interests of a few people at the expense of everyone else. Before anything is implemented, the town needs to consider the economic effects and figure out the extent of the actual problem, Nonis said.
Still, some people who came out to speak Tuesday, and others in Narragansett more generally, say the town has to do something about short-term rentals, which they blame not just for nuisance issues like parking and loud parties, but for changing the character of once-quiet neighborhoods into business districts that host what are effectively boutique hotels.
Carlene Towne said a house near her was rented out for a wedding recently.
“Harbour Island is a residential community, but the homeowners across the street have turned their house into a commercial operation,” Towne said.
Towns around Rhode Island are facing these sorts of dilemmas — perhaps nowhere more acutely than in Narragansett, which faces housing and population pressures from multiple directions. And in trying to deal with it, it’s run into litigation and controversy.
Narragansett is one town over from the main campus of the University of Rhode Island. The town passed an ordinance banning more than three students from living in one non-owner-occupied dwelling unit, a matter that’s tied up in court. Narragansett 2100 last month won a stay preventing enforcement of that ordinance until the judge makes a final ruling.
When the 2020 U.S. Census came out, Narragansett saw the largest population decrease among Rhode Island cities and towns, surely in part due to the absence of college students in the early days of COVID.
But some in town also worry more broadly about the character of the community — the beloved ice cream shop that can’t make enough money to justify staying open in the winter, or the schools that have fewer and fewer children.
“The crux of the matter is something needs to be done, because very short-term rentals have taken all areas of this town by storm,” Town Councilwoman Deb Kopech said Tuesday night.
Councilwoman Ewa Dzwierzynski, who worked with Kopech and town officials in drafting the proposal that got discussed Tuesday night, said in an interview beforehand that housing — both the three-student ordinance and short-term rentals — is the biggest political issue in town as it heads into the November election. She and Kopech are on the ballot, among 10 candidates for five seats.
At the meeting Tuesday night, Dzwierzynski said they’d modeled the ordinance on cities and towns not just around the state but around the country. The reason people are flocking into Narragansett to buy up short-term rental properties from places like California, Dzwierzynski said, is that places like California have already acted to restrict them. When buyers convert homes into investment properties, it means there are fewer options for people to buy to actually live in, and with added demand comes higher prices, skeptics say.
“We’re losing community and it’s driving up the prices,” Dzwierzynski said. “It’s boxing out families that can live here year-round.”
The ordinance as written doesn’t have the votes to pass the five-member council right now. The issue isn’t going away and will likely fall to the next council. In a seaside town that’s almost inevitably described as “charming” or “quaint,” politics can be hard fought.
Councilman Patrick Murray, who’s running for state Senate, raised concerns about overreach.
“I think this is an encroachment of property rights,” he said.
Council President Jesse Pugh, who is not running for re-election, agreed that short-term rentals were an issue that helped make living in Narragansett year-round out of reach for many families, but suggested simply capping the number of short-term rentals available in town, while grandfathering in current ones.
Around the state — and this isn’t an exclusive list — Newport has also regulated short-term rentals, as have Westerly and Portsmouth. The state of Rhode Island created a statewide registry that went live Monday. Already, Narragansett short-term rental owners are registering their properties through the state for $50 a pop, although it’s unclear how many exist in the town. An estimate from a software company said the number could be as high as 1,000.
One of them is next to Ande Frost, who said her life has been threatened when she’s gone at 2 a.m. to ask them to quiet down, had beer bottles thrown at her, and had people park across her driveway.
“It has been an ugly experience,” Frost said.
Not everyone agreed: Town resident Steve DeSimone said he was toying with the idea of renting his house for a weekend over the summer. That wouldn’t be possible under this ordinance.
“I think it’s wrong for you to take my property rights away because you’re not happy with the way a few people are running their properties,” DeSimone said.