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ACLU challenges student housing ordinance

Lawsuit argues denial of housing to groups of three or more students unconstitutional

The Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the City of Providence over a zoning law prohibiting more than three college students from living in a single-family home together, according to a Feb. 23 press release.

The suit was filed on behalf of four Johnson and Wales University undergraduates who intend to live together in a Providence home in June. The ACLU also names Mayor Jorge Elorza and Jeffrey Lykins, director of the Providence department of inspection and standards, as defendants.

There has yet to be any enforcement action taken against the plaintiffs and the suit was filed preemptively, said Jeffrey Levy, one of the attorneys representing the students. It is impossible to know if there have been any other similar instances, but he surmised that there are most likely countless other cases of students living in violation of the ordinance, Levy added.

Passed in September, the ordinance makes no distinction between undergraduate and graduate students and applies to R-1 and R-1A zones in the city, which cover much of the area around Brown’s campus. It was passed in response to complaints about parties and other disruptive behavior occurring in residential neighborhoods surrounding university campuses, according to a Sept. 17 press release.

In the press release, City Council President Luis Aponte explained that R-1 zones are primarily intended for single-family properties not designed for the group living that characterizes student housing. The current stock of students occupying those homes is a “cause for concern,” he said, adding that it is the goal of the city to “maintain our single-family housing stock for families who want to live here.”

In the same press release, City Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan explained that she introduced the legislation because the occupation of college students in single family homes is “undermining the character of our neighborhoods, diminishing the quality of life and creating health and public safety concerns.” She added that the rationale behind the ordinance was to “better protect the safety of students and residents,” and “improve housing standards for all Providence residents.”

“There’s absolutely no reason to think that having more than three students living together in a single-family home has any connection at all to parties,” Levy said. “The city has ordinances in place to deal with the noise, and there are laws in place on the state level as well,” he added. “There are tools the city has at its disposal to address the problems the city councilors seem to be concerned about,” he added.

The ACLU’s complaint specifically mentions the unconstitutionality of the ordinance, which it labels an “intrusion into the rights of college and graduate students to choose with whom they live.” It also seeks to defend the rights of property owners who have the right to rent to tenants of their choosing.

The city has about 30 days to answer the ACLU’s complaint with the possibility of an extension, Levy said. After that, the case moves into the discovery period which he doubts will be protracted due to the fact that “pretty much everyone knows the facts,” he said. The case will most likely be in front of a judge within the next few months, he added.


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