PROVIDENCE — City Councilor Helen D. Anthony is expected to introduce an ordinance change on Wednesday night that would prohibit more than three college students from renting an apartment together, causing an outcry from landlords, college students, and advocates who say it will cause rental prices to continue to rise.
The current ordinance, which passed in 2014, does limit the number of college students per unit to three, but is applicable only in R-1 zones, which are single-family housing units. That’s approximately 7,000 units across the city. However, the changes Anthony is expected to present would limit any non-owner occupied unit from housing more than three students. These new changes could impact more than 22,000 additional units, according to research into the proposed ordinance changes provided to the Globe by the city’s planning department.
“That’s 22,000 new opportunities for displacement. It won’t happen in every case, but even in only 1 percent of cases, that’s still 220 [units],” said Dylan Conley, an attorney at the Law Office of William J Conley Jr., who specializes in municipal, land use, and civil litigation.
A land-use attorney who has been on the council for more than three years, Anthony represents Ward 2, which includes the College Hill, Blackstone, and Wayland neighborhoods. On a call with a Globe reporter Tuesday, Anthony explained that there have been several properties around Brown University in particular where single-family homes have been purchased by developers and converted into what resembled dorms or boarding houses.
“It’s causing a lot of problems,” said Anthony, rattling off concerns of overcrowding, noise, and garbage. “Some of these homes don’t even hit the market. Developers come in and purchase them at more than asking prices and completely redo them to rent to students.”
Yet, these properties are the minority of the thousands of units the proposed ordinance changes would impact. There are small landlords, who do own four- or five-bedroom apartments, rent to college students, and have not had issues with the city. Anthony acknowledged they would be impacted, too, and said, “It’s unfortunate.”
Conley said while he is familiar with the issues of these select developers, he does not understand how this ordinance will fix the problem.
“The issue of nuisances of neighborhoods is real. But the solution isn’t to spread that nuisance out more,” said Conley. “Learning how to manage the nuisances needs to be the primary strategy. Instead, we are spreading out the problem by spreading this population out further.”
A petition against the proposed ordinance — penned by Alisha Imholt, who works for Providence Realty Advisors LLC — had already garnered nearly 700 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon. Providence Realty Advisors, also known as Providence Living, owned by Dustin Dezube, is a rental agency and property management company. Many of the company’s units are rented to students and young professionals around Federal Hill, College Hill, and Fox Point.
“If this ordinance passes, it will displace college students living in groups larger than three,” read the petition. “This in turn will create an artificial demand for more rental units and put further strain upon an already overheated rental market. Rent will increase, not only for students, but for the entire rental community.”
Rhode Island renters are paying an average of 11.2 percent more per month in rent — and as much as 126 percent more in some areas — than they did a decade ago, according to census data released earlier this year. The median renter in Rhode Island is paying $1,031 per month, up from $927 in 2010.
Petitioners, including those who identified as college students, spoke out against the ordinance changes.
“I’m a current grad student and could not afford housing without multiple roommates,” wrote a Ruby Erickson.
Clara Bertness said she lived in Providence as a student and would not have been able to afford living in the city if this ordinance existed when she was attending school.
“This law would also make attending college in Providence even less affordable for low income students, undermining the very limited financial support available,” wrote Bertness in the petition.
The ordinance’s changes will be introduced to the council at a meeting on Wednesday at 5 p.m. The public will have the opportunity to provide comment ahead of any vote that would take place.
Both Anthony and fellow Councilor John Goncalves, of Ward 1, suggested to a Globe reporter that perhaps universities’ enrollment increases should be capped if they do not have enough student housing on campus. Yet, many Rhode Islanders, including those from low-income backgrounds, are rooming in multiroom apartments with several roommates in order to afford the rent while working toward a degree, according to their landlords. In many cases, especially since the pandemic began, working Rhode Islanders have returned to school in hopes of a career change or to help earn an income boost. When asked, Anthony said she understands that not every renter enrolled in higher education is a “traditional college student,” meaning 18 to about 22 years old.
“I would agree that we need some type of definition of ‘students’ that would protect non-traditional students and graduate students,” said Anthony, who explained the council could amend the proposed ordinance changes. “But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to limit three [students] per unit.”
Conley said students who have access to means won’t be impacted, but will take up more housing units across the city. “Low-income students will be pushed out immediately,” said Conley. He said students at Rhode Island College, which has a large low-income population, “will be immediately crushed.”
Anthony said she is “all for density,” and that she understands Rhode Island has a housing crisis, but said the city “needs more protections.” She said Brown University recently purchased a problematic property, but acknowledged how that property will soon be taken off the city’s property tax rolls. Brown, like all nonprofits in the state, is tax-exempt.
“I’ve used every mechanism available to me to hold these developers accountable. They continue to pay the fines. They still do what they want and we don’t have enough staff 24/7 to monitor them,” said Anthony. “And our colleges and universities have not been as helpful as I would have hoped.”
The ordinance this proposal would expand has been challenged in court before. In 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island filed a lawsuit on behalf of four Johnson & Wales undergraduate students and their landlord, calling the ordinance “discriminatory and ineffective.” In 2018, Superior Court Judge Maureen Keough acknowledged that she had “strong reservations” over the effectiveness of the ordinance, which promised the improvement of neighborhoods, and said it “seemed nonsensical.” Yet, Keough ruled against the students and found the ordinance constitutional. The Rhode Island Supreme Court upheld Keough’s ruling after it was appealed by the ACLU in 2019.
“Students are not a protected class,” said Anthony.
Steve Brown, the executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, told the Globe it is “hard to believe that a city that thrives because of its college community would propose such a surprisingly anti-student ordinance.”
“The city already has numerous laws in place to address noise, parties, traffic, and other possible nuisances,” said Brown. “The proposed expansion of the ordinance merely punishes students for being students and will especially harm low-income young people trying to afford to live in a city already facing a severe housing shortage.”
Brown also took issue with the proposal’s suggested penalties for students. It calls for universities to be notified any time a student violates the ordinance, and for universities to discipline students for such off-campus conduct.
Despite the city’s ordinance being upheld by the state Supreme Court, Brown said the ACLU will be analyzing the scope of this new proposal to determine if there are grounds for a new challenge. Whether it does or not, Brown said he hopes the council will reject the ordinance’s expansion due to its “inevitably harmful and ineffective impact.”