ACLU Seeks Dismissal of Charges Under New Narragansett Student Housing Ordinance

Posted: Feb, 21, 2017

The ACLU of Rhode Island has filed a brief today in Narragansett Municipal Court seeking dismissal of the charges against twelve people and businesses for violating a Town ordinance barring more than four unrelated people from living together. The brief, filed by ACLU of RI volunteer attorney H. Jefferson Melish, argues that the housing restriction, aimed at unruly URI students, is unconstitutional.

In 1994, the R.I. Superior Court decision struck down, as a violation of due process and equal protection rights, a virtually identical ordinance that restricted more than three unrelated people from living together. In ruling that previous Narragansett ordinance unconstitutional, the court noted: “It is a strange – and unconstitutional – ordinance indeed that would permit the Hatfields and the McCoys to live in a residential zone while barring four scholars from the University of Rhode Island from sharing an apartment on the same street.” The brief filed today argues that nothing has changed in the intervening 23 years to lead to a different conclusion about the ordinance’s invalidity. Among the other points made in the ACLU’s brief:

* The number of rental properties affected by the ordinance “is sizeable.”

* While the “unacceptable behavior of URI student renters [is] the raison d’etre of the ordinance,” complaints about unruly student conduct “involve a very small proportion of the more than three thousand URI students who reside in Narragansett,” and those complaints have “decreased steadily over the past four years,” according to Town statistics. 

* Narragansett “has numerous tools to address any anti-social behavior by any of its residents,” citing over a dozen such ordinances already on the books, including ones for disturbing the peace, littering, fighting, and the unlawful possession of alcohol.

* If the ordinance is allowed to stand, “rental costs to students could increase dramatically,” and “ironically, the need for additional rental housing for URI students would also increase.”

* The defendant landlords signed leases with their current tenants prior to enactment of the amended ordinance last May, and face significant economic burdens if the ordinance is allowed to stand.

In a letter to the Town Council last year in opposition to passage of the ordinance, the ACLU argued that it could “have a significant and adverse financial impact on innocent, hard-working students, by making rental housing more difficult, and consequently more expensive, for them to obtain. The proposal’s focus on the kinship status of renters is unfair and extremely unlikely to help resolve any of the legitimate concerns prompting calls for action in the first place.”

A similar ordinance was passed last year by the City of Providence, and is the subject of a separate pending ACLU lawsuit.