A new lawsuit is another turning point in a long battle against URI students living in Narragansett

The dispute involves decades of municipal ordinances, court rulings overturning those ordinances, and other court rulings that may or may not have overturned those overturns. As complex as the events leading up to the trial are, the underlying issue is simple: housing.

The city saw an 8% drop in population in the 2020 census, the largest in the state. Certain areas of the city have a large population of University of Rhode Island students. College towns were particularly difficult to count due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But some in town, pointing to things like stagnant primary school enrolment, have raised concerns on the changing character of Narragansett, with student housing, Airbnbs and out-of-state buyers contributing to what they see as a problem. Those who want the city to do more for this type of rental point to both short-term issues, like trash and parties, and long-term ones, like affordability for year-round residents.

Others in Narragansett, however, say the city’s approach to dealing with these issues has been clumsy, exclusive and, in some cases — like the most recent lawsuit — downright illegal. Many landlords and tenants claim that the vast majority of student, vacation, and short-term rentals are responsibly managed. They framed efforts to clamp down on rentals as an attempt to exclude anyone who hasn’t been lucky enough to already be there.

It’s been a problem for a long time. So long, in fact, that the most recent trial dates back three and a half decades.

In 1987, Narragansett passed a housing ordinance that limited the number of unrelated people in a living unit to three. A group of landlords and tenants challenged it a few years later in Superior Court and won. A state judge ruled in 1994 that barring more than three unrelated people from living together violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the state constitution.

In 2016, the city council tried again to solve the problem of student rentals. This time, the city limited the number of unrelated people living together to four, down from three. The city has charged dozens of landlords with violating this law. These owners fought back and in 2017, like in 1994, they won. A city judge ruled that banning more than four people living in one place violated the state constitution. The city never appealed the decision, the owners say.

In the meantime, however, in 2020 the State Supreme Court upheld a law in Providence which prevented more than three students from living together in a single family home in some areas.

A few weeks later, the city of Narragansett enacted its own ban on more than three students living in the same non-owner occupied unit. The owners and other groups sued, again, and won, again. But this time the victory came for procedural reasons. A judge ruled that the city council did not give interested parties enough opportunity to decide the issue before passing the law, rendering it void.

Narragansett has tried again in 2021, this time giving people ample opportunity to speak up. But he got similar results: the same judge found Only last month did the city fail to take the proper steps to pass the law, although this time around it was overruled for various procedural reasons.

That’s where things left off, but they didn’t sit still for long. Eight days after the judge dismissed the three students’ order for the second time, the city began issuing citations for violating the even older 2016 law that prohibits more than four unrelated people from living together.

But this law, according to the owners, was already canceled in 2017.

According to the landlords’ lawsuit, the city is apparently acting on the theory that the Supreme Court’s decision in the Providence case effectively revived Narragansett’s 2016 law prohibiting more than four unrelated people from living together.

The owners argue that the 2016 ordinance was dead and remains dead: the decision in the Providence case involved a different law in a different city. The Providence decision did not explicitly overturn previous decisions in the Narragansett cases, the owners claim. And in fact, when Narragansett passed laws prohibiting more than three students from living together, it effectively reversed the 2016 law prohibiting more than four unrelated people from living together.

Now, with the three students’ ordinances overturned, the city has no good law to enforce — despite violations last month that come with fines of up to $500 a day, the landlords say.

“The City of Narragansett has once again played fast and loose with its ordinances to the detriment of the students and property owners of Narragansett,” the owners say in legal documents. “The city’s actions amount to a complete disregard of Rhode Island law and this Court should not endorse their continued abuse of the same.”

If the city were allowed to enforce the law, landlords would face hefty fines and students would have to scramble for housing. Narragansett already has laws on the books to address nuisance issues, such as a barrel law, the lawsuit says.

Representatives for the town of Narragansett did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Brian Amaral can be contacted at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.

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