The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island has filed suit against the City of Providence to challenge a recently enacted city ordinance that prohibits more than three “college students” from living together in certain areas of the city. The ACLU of RI argues that the ordinance is discriminatory and ineffective at its stated purpose of improving neighborhoods, and will likely have the most impact on lower-income students. 

Today’s lawsuit, filed in Rhode Island Superior Court by ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys Jeffrey L. Levy and Charles D. Blackman, is on behalf of the owner and tenants – four Johnson & Wales undergraduate students – of a house in the Elmhurst section of Providence. The City ordinance, enacted in September, makes this arrangement illegal by prohibiting more than three “college students” from living together in a non-owner-occupied single family home in certain residential areas. The suit argues that the ordinance violates the plaintiffs’ rights to due process and equal protection of the law.

The lawsuit claims that “there is absolutely no reason to believe that restricting the number of student tenants in a small subset of available rental housing (i.e., single-family homes) will make the affected neighborhoods any quieter, safer or cleaner. On the contrary, the ordinance is an unconstitutional intrusion into the rights of college and graduate students to choose with whom they wish to live, and the rights of property owners to rent their homes to tenants of their choice.”

The suit notes that there are already multiple ordinances in place to address noise, parties, traffic, and other possible nuisances. In challenging the ordinance’s discrimination against students “based solely on their occupation and/or educational status,” the suit further points out that “college student” is so broadly defined that it includes anyone enrolled in a college or university, whether they are a full-time undergraduate student, a PhD candidate, or a professional taking classes part-time.

The ACLU of RI raised these concerns before the Providence City Council approved, and Mayor Jorge Elorza signed, the ordinance into law in September.

Attorney Levy said today: “The City and State already have laws in place that regulate overcrowding, loud parties and underage drinking. This ordinance goes too far by attempting to legislate who can live together in the same house. Ultimately, it will have its most significant impact on students from low-income and middle-income families who can’t afford to cover a larger share of the rent in a single-family home.”

ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown added: “The ordinance’s unfair stigmatization of Providence’s students is contrary to the City’s reputation as a welcome host to the local colleges and universities. More vigorous enforcement of laws already on the books, along with increased collaboration with the educational institutions, would be a more productive method to deal with the legitimate concerns that some residents have raised.”

The lawsuit seeks to halt all enforcement of the ordinance and have it declared unconstitutional.