“That’s 22,000 new displacement opportunities. It won’t happen in every case, but even just 1 percent of the time, that’s still 220 [units]said Dylan Conley, an attorney with the law firm of William J. Conley Jr. who specializes in municipal, land use and civil litigation.
A land use advocate who has been on the council for more than three years, Anthony represents Ward 2, which includes the boroughs of College Hill, Blackstone and Wayland. In a call with a Globe reporter on Tuesday, Anthony explained that there have been several lots, particularly near Brown University, where single-family homes have been bought by developers and converted into dormitories or boarding houses.
“It’s causing a lot of problems,” Anthony said, rattling off concerns about overcrowding, noise and litter. “Some of these houses don’t even come on the market. Developers come in and buy them at inflated prices and completely revamp them to rent to students.”
However, these properties are a minority of the thousands of units that would be affected by the proposed ordinance changes. There are small landlords who own four- and five-bedroom apartments and rent them out to college students and don’t have problems with the city. Anthony acknowledged they too would be affected, saying: “It’s unfortunate.”
Conley said while he’s familiar with the issues faced by these select developers, he doesn’t understand how this regulation will address the issue.
“The problem of neighborhood harassment is real. But the solution isn’t to spread this nuisance further,” Conley said. “Learning how to deal with the harassment has to be the primary strategy. Instead, we spread the problem by further spreading that population.”
A petition opposing the proposed regulation — written 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 real estate management company. Many of the Company’s units are rented to students and young professionals in the Federal Hill, College Hill and Fox Point areas.
“If this ordinance is passed, college students living in groups larger than three will be evicted,” the petition reads. “This in turn will create artificial demand for more rental units and further weigh on the already overheated rental market. Rents will go up, not just for students, but for the entire rental community.”
According to census data released earlier this year, renters in Rhode Island are paying an average of 11.2 percent more rent per month — and in some areas as much as 126 percent more — than a decade ago. The average renter in Rhode Island pays $1,031 a month, up from $927 in 2010.
Petitioners, including those who identified themselves as college students, opposed the ordinance changes.
“I’m currently a graduate student and couldn’t afford an apartment without several roommates,” wrote a Ruby Erickson.
Clara Bertness said she lived in Providence as a student and could not have afforded to live in the city had that ordinance been in place when she attended school.
“This law would also make college in Providence even less affordable for low-income students to attend and undermine the very limited financial aid,” Bertness wrote in the petition.
The amendments to the regulation will be presented to the Council at a meeting on Wednesday at 5pm. The public has the opportunity to comment ahead of a possible vote.
Both Anthony and Ward 1 council member John Goncalves suggested to a Globe reporter that perhaps the increase in university enrollments should be limited if they do not have enough student housing on campus. Still, many Rhode Island residents, including those from low-income backgrounds, live in multi-bedroom apartments with multiple roommates to afford the rent while they work towards college, according to their landlords. In many cases, particularly since the pandemic began, working Rhode Island residents have returned to school in hopes of a career change or an increase in income. When asked, Anthony said she understands that not every renter who is enrolled in college is a “traditional college student,” which ranges from 18 to about 22 years old.
“I would agree that we need some sort of definition of ‘students’ that would protect non-traditional undergraduate and graduate students,” said Anthony, who said the council could amend proposed changes to the regulation. “But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to limit it to three [students] per unit.”
Conley said students who have access to funds will not be affected but will occupy more housing units across the city. “Low-income students are immediately squeezed out,” Conley said. He said students at Rhode Island College, which has a large low-income population, “get crushed immediately.”
Anthony said she was “anything for density” and whatnot She understands Rhode Island has a housing crisis but said the city “needs more protection.” She said Brown University recently bought a problem property, but acknowledged that property will soon be removed from the city’s property tax lists. Brown, like all nonprofits in the state, is tax-exempt.
“I have used every mechanism at my disposal to hold these developers accountable. They continue to pay the fines. They still do what they want and we don’t have enough staff to monitor them 24/7,” Anthony said. “And our colleges and universities haven’t been as helpful as I had hoped.”
The Regulation would extend this proposal has already been challenged in court. In 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island filed a lawsuit on behalf of four Johnson & Wales students and their landlord, calling the ordinance “discriminatory and ineffective.” In 2018, Superior Court Justice Maureen Keough acknowledged that she had “strong reservations” about the effectiveness of the regulation, which promised to improve neighborhoods, saying it was “nonsensical”. However, Keough ruled against the students and found the ordinance to be constitutional. The Rhode Island Supreme Court upheld Keough’s verdict after the ACLU appealed in 2019.
“Students are not a protected class,” Anthony said.
Steve Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU, told the Globe it was “hard to believe that a city thriving on its college community would propose such a surprisingly anti-student ordinance.”
“The city has already enacted numerous laws to address noise, parties, traffic and other possible nuisances,” Brown said. “The proposed expansion of the regulation only penalizes students for being students and will particularly hurt low-income young people trying to afford life in a city already facing severe housing shortages.”
Brown also criticized the proposed penalties for students in the proposal. It calls for universities to be notified whenever a student violates the ordinance and for universities to discipline students for such off-campus behavior.
Though the city’s ordinance will be upheld by the state Supreme Court, Brown said the ACLU will analyze the scope of this new proposal to determine if there are grounds for a new challenge. Whether or not that’s the case, Brown said he hoped the council would oppose expanding the regulation because of its “inevitably harmful and ineffective effects”.
Alexa Gagosz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.