THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


In the Zone

The Dense Future of Student Housing

by Ben Berke

Illustration by Polina Godz

published October 9, 2015


On September 17, Mayor Jorge Elorza approved a zoning ordinance that will restrict the spread of student housing into single-family residential areas. Elorza signed the ordinance following its approval by the City Council. This decision came after a summer of forums, council meetings, and hearings addressing friction between college students and residents in Elmhurst, one of the neighborhoods adjacent to Providence College.

The new amendment to the zoning ordinance reads, “In the R-1A and R-1 districts, a single-family dwelling, that is non-owner occupied, shall not be occupied by more than three college students.”

This amendment has been misread by some as an eradication of student housing. Early news stories announcing the zoning change confused many who were unfamiliar with zoning parlance. Under the new ordinance, most off-campus students will still be legally occupying their homes.

Few students live in single-family homes, so most of them are immediately excluded from the purview of the new ordinance. Landlords who follow zoning laws and lease houses to more than three students have registered and renovated their properties as multi-family dwellings. Many of these student-occupied multi-family houses are in R-2 or R-3 Residential Districts in any case, higher-density residential zones where the new ordinance also doesn’t apply.

The new zoning ordinance wasn’t designed as a tool to evict students from certain neighborhoods—it was designed to prevent students from expanding into new ones. The question is, which ones?

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According to Providence’s zoning ordinance, R-1 Residential Districts are “intended for detached single-family dwellings of low density residential development.” R-1A zones are defined similarly, only with lot sizes “larger than those typically found in the City.” These zones typically correspond with middleand upper-class neighborhoods like Elmhurst, College Hill, and Wayland Square. Though existing multi-family homes in these zones are legally grandfathered into the zoning code, detached single-family homes—off limits to student housing groups of more than three—are the only new residential developments permitted in these areas.

The new amendment to the zoning ordinance was brought to the City Council by Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan of Ward 5, a jurisdiction that encompasses Providence College, Rhode Island College, and much of the Elmhurst and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods. The majority of residential land in Ward 5 is classified as R-1 or R-1A.

In a nutshell, the new ordinance’s most pressing objective was to prevent Providence College students from moving into single-family homes in Elmhurst. According to Bob Azar, the Deputy Director of Providence’s Department of Planning and Development, student housing developers have recently started buying single-family homes in Elmhurst and leasing them on a room-by-room basis to students. Residents complained about rowdy student behavior and contacted their representative, Councilwoman Ryan, who felt that the situation demanded a more robust approach than the traditional disciplinary measures of noise complaints, trash removal citations, and calls to campus police or university officials.

Ryan cites these developments as the impetus for the zoning amendment. “The change in intended use of single-family homes is undermining the character of our neighborhoods, diminishing the quality of life, and creating health and public safety concerns,” Councilwoman Ryan told GoLocalProv. “The new zoning ordinance will give the City a critical tool in addressing the negative impacts of student housing in single-family districts.”

Negative impacts of student housing in single-family districts can mean a number of things. Most of all, there’s the noise. Students stay up later, play louder music, have more parties. Councilwoman Ryan told the Providence Journal, “around the same time working families are trying to turn in for the night, college students are just getting started with late night activities that make lots of noise.” Councilman Seth Yurdin of Ward 1, a jurisdiction that encompasses Fox Point and Downtown, said smaller issues concerning littering and trash removal fuel frustration among community members. 

There are also concerns about students degrading the housing stock they occupy. “There’s a difference between the way college students reside on the property and families reside on the property,” Ryan told NBC 10 News. “Families are invested in the house, invested in the community, college students typically are transient.” Homeowners have vested interests in taking care of their houses. Well-maintained homes keep neighbors happy and fetch higher prices when it’s time to sell. These incentives don’t exist for short-term renters. Landlords often remove detailing and install vinyl siding in anticipation of bad care from renters.

Though the City Council voted in favor of the amendment two times over, the new ordinance certainly has its critics. The City Planning Commission, a citizen board that advises the City Council on zoning decisions, recommended against adopting the ordinance. So did the American Civil Liberties Union. In the final vote, three members of the 15-person City Council voted against the amendment, including Yurdin and Councilman Sam Zurier of Ward 2, a jurisdiction that encompasses most of College Hill. 

“The proposal didn’t seem targeted to dealing with the problem,” said Yurdin. “Sometimes there are houses that have problems in terms of parties and things that disrupt the neighborhoods. Sometimes there are landlords who aren’t very good at working with the tenants to make sure they’re respectful of the neighborhood. But passing something that was a blanket prohibition on students seemed to be much broader than was necessary to actually address the problem.”

Yurdin wanted to address “town-gown” relations more directly. He co-sponsored a proposal to form a Community and Student Relations Task Force that would make policy recommendations based on studies of best practices in other cities, and data on calls for public safety response to off-campus student housing. The Task Force would include a mix of City Council members, students, community members, landlords, realtors, and university administrators. The proposal went before the City Council on October 1, where Yurdin was surprised to see it garner little support.

Yurdin’s proposal aims to mend student-community relations across Providence, though the mechanics it lays out for achieving this are vague. The zoning ordinance’s approach is to keep peace by severing these relations, at least in low-density, single-family neighborhoods. 

Critics are also wary of the precedent the amendment sets. “I’m not comfortable supporting zoning that actually singles out individual people based on what they’re doing in terms of choices of education and otherwise,” said Yurdin. “I feel like it’s a bad precedent to start discriminating against people on this basis.”

The ACLU’s advisory letter to the City Council also found the amendment’s targeting of such a specific population “quite problematic.” James Kennedy, a contributing writer for RI Future, went as far as calling the new ordinance an act of exclusionary zoning.

Without a doubt, the amendment to the zoning ordinance excludes a specific population from moving into a given community, which fits within the widely used definition of exclusionary zoning. But the ordinance’s getting tagged with an unattractive buzzword is different from its violating the law.

By signing the amendment into law, Providence is arguing that this ordinance “promotes the public health, safety, and general welfare” of the city, the primary purpose of zoning as laid out in the Zoning Enabling Act. Providence is essentially telling college students that they cannot be trusted to harmonize with residents of single-family neighborhoods, that their inconvenience to the community outweighs the inconvenience they face in being excluded from that community. This is a pessimistic conclusion on the part of the city, but few would argue that it is groundless.

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With regards to housing on the East Side, the effect of the new ordinance is unclear. Neither Azar nor Yurdin felt that the ordinance would have much of an immediate impact outside of Elmhurst. Azar described the East Side’s student housing market as fairly stable: “For the most part, the existing student houses were established as such many years ago. While on occasion you’ll see an owner-occupied house sell to someone who turns it into student housing, it’s not as common on College Hill as it is in Elmhurst.”

But this may only be a short-run equilibrium. As the number of Brown and RISD students increases annually, more and more students aren’t fitting into university housing and neither school is constructing new dormitories.

The new ordinance could funnel much of this overflow into Fox Point. College Hill and Wayland Square are comprised primarily of R-1 and R-1A Residential Districts, areas where developers are now prohibited from expanding the student housing stock. Single-family homes in Fox Point, which is zoned almost entirely as R-2 and R-3 Residential Districts, aren’t protected from student housing developers under the new ordinance.

Without an effort from the city of Providence to create and protect affordable housing in Fox Point, where average income is lower than in College Hill and Wayland Square, student encroachment could mean residential displacement. An influx of students might raise rents and price out some of the neighborhood’s long-time residents. This would regrettably fit into a historical narrative of residential displacement in Fox Point, one that began in the 1960s when the East Side Urban Renewal Project and I-195 construction pushed a Cape Verdean immigrant community off of land desired by the universities.

In this light, large-scale student housing developments like 257 Thayer can seem an attractive solution to city planners and policy makers. Similar to a dormitory, these developments soak up university growth, preventing student encroachment into neighborhoods and mitigating residential displacement. And unlike university-owned dormitories, privately-owned student housing developments pay property taxes.

Large-scale student housing developments are appearing at the periphery of urban campuses across the country. Gilbane Development Company, the Rhode Island-based developer behind 257 Thayer, has built or assisted 12 large-scale student housing developments at 10 different college campuses. Gilbane’s developments have names like “The Edge” and “The Verge”, which are both located within a block of their respective main campuses at Iowa State University and the University of Cincinnati. They have a trademark on the catchphrase “the next level of student housing.”

Azar attested that in the wake of 257 Thayer’s initial success, his office has spoken with more developers interested in “doing something similar with student housing in different areas of Providence, including College Hill.” This is in addition to the South Street Landing development, which features a proposed 220-unit housing complex that will cater to students from Brown’s medical school, Johnson & Wales University, and the forthcoming University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College joint nursing school. These types of developments will likely play a major role in the future of student housing in Providence.

There are, of course, downsides to large-scale student housing developments. The privately-owned dormitory is an emerging building type that often necessitates the destruction of a lot of older buildings. The supplanting structure is usually a monolith that dominates the streetscape, despite supposed efforts to match the neighborhood’s architectural character. In the case of 257 Thayer, this effort seemed to start and end with the brick facade. 

There’s also something to be said about the strangeness of building a massive housing complex in a desirable part of town that essentially only opens its doors to students. Similar to the new ordinance, the 257 Thayer approach inches toward a Providence in which students are residentially segregated from the community, a scenario with obvious benefits and drawbacks. Such an approach circumvents student-community friction by minimizing student-community contact. In absence of an expansion of on-campus housing, Yurdin’s proposed Task Force may be the best way to foster a comfortable student-community relationship in the denser neighborhoods that students are heading towards. Either that or Providence must embrace “the next level of student housing®” in full force, for better or for worse.

 

BEN BERKE B’16 occupies a three-family dwelling unit in an R-1 Residential District.