URI students unhappy with Narragansett proposal to reduce number of unrelated residents who can live together

NARRAGANSETT – A proposed amendment to the town’s current ordinance limiting the number of unrelated individuals living in a single dwelling is reigniting a long-standing issue between the town and college students at a time when the University of Rhode Island is planning to limit on-campus living space due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Town Council on June 26 unanimously approved forwarding to the Planning Board an amended zoning ordinance that would limit the number of unrelated people living in a single place from its current number of four down to three. Town officials based their amendment on what Providence instituted in 2015. The Providence ordinance has since been upheld by the R.I. Supreme Court after the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island appealed, claiming the ordinance was unconstitutional.

However, the proposed ordinance in Narragansett has raised concerns with URI students, especially with limited housing options on the horizon. The university, as part of its recent plan to reopen campus in the fall, said it plans to reduce on-campus living by 25%. URI is also “strongly” encouraging returning students to look into off-campus housing as an option for alternative residential living, including offering a website to help students seek such housing.

During the June 26 Town Council meeting, Jay Rumas, president of the URI chapter of the ACLU, urged the council to delay implementing the amended ordinance because of the high number of students “who might not be able to get housing” due to the current health crisis.

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“I think it’s a very bad time to put this forward and, quite frankly, it’s predatory to pass this at this time,” Rumas said.

The Planning Board will discuss the amendment in a Zoom meeting on Thursday at 6 p.m. The original June 1 meeting was postponed because the virtual platform the meeting was going to be held on was unable to accommodate the high volume of students from URI who were scheduled to testify.

Four URI students have created an online petition asking for signatures to stop Narragansett’s proposed ordinance amendment. More than 8,200 people signed the petition as of Monday.

The ACLU has also spoken out against the proposed amendment. In a July 1 letter to the Planning Board, Executive Director Steven Brown wrote that the proposed amendment “only exacerbates” town-university divisions rather than reduces them. Plus, limiting student housing in this matter at a time when town officials “are aware” that several URI students will be displaced from campus housing by the pandemic “is especially mean-spirited,” Brown said.

“[We] believe that the proposal’s focus on the educational status of renters is unfair and extremely unlikely to help resolve any of the concerns prompting calls for action in the first place,” Brown said. “When an ordinance like this fails to have its hoped-for impact, it will likely only lead to more draconian and ineffective efforts, a vicious circle that in the end serves no one well.”

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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