The Providence City Council holds a final vote next week on an ordinance that could significantly affect student housing. In a city that’s home to half-a-dozen colleges, town-gown relations are an ongoing struggle. But some residents have reached a breaking point.
On a hot, late-summer afternoon, City Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan walks through the Elmhurst neighborhood in Providence’s Fifth Ward. Insects buzz in trees that line the streets. Green lawns lead up to stately Victorian homes and colonial cottages. The manicured campus of Providence College is just up the street.
“It’s become an attractive place, so it’s the place where college students want to live,” said Ryan, referring to the outskirts of this picturesque neighborhood. There, landlords have aggressively bought up two and three-family homes, and rented them to college students. The houses have names like “the Mansion”, “North Pole”, and “South Beach.”
And Ryan said the students in them party a lot.
“If that happened once or twice, you’d say okay poor behavior,” said Ryan. “It’s the constant problem. That it’s just gotten to a point that there aren’t enough city resources.”
Providence is dotted with colleges, but this neighborhood has become a mecca for disruptive students, says Ryan. And they’re not all from Providence College. Students from Johnson and Wales, Rhode Island College, and Bryant University have moved in too. Residents say there are parties every weekend without fail.
Jackie Kinney, like most residents, grew up in Elmhurst. Her grandparents helped establish St. Pius, a neighborhood Catholic Church. Kinney describes one party nearby, this past Fourth of July.
“There were kids that were throwing beer cans at the cars off of a third floor balcony,” said Kinney. “And it smashed right in front of my car, and had beer all over my car and I stopped and yelled at the kids, and they laughed.”
It may be funny to students, but Kinney’s not laughing. Because those students are now moving into single family homes on her block. She says residents live in fear each time a “for sale” sign pops up in the area. Just down the street a property about to hit the market.
“Has it been looked at by the different landlords? Oh yes it has, and I’m like ‘oh my lord they could put 15 kids in that home, and there we go, it’s a college dorm,” said Kinney.
That’s why she and other residents, championed by Ryan are pushing for a new zoning ordinance that would limit the number of students renting a single family rental house to just three. If passed, the ordinance wouldn’t affect current leases, like the one a group of women from Johnson and Wales University signed for Victorian cottage across the street from Kinney.
“We met one of them, very nice, welcome to the neighborhood, this is a neighborhood. We hope you respect us,” said Kinney.
Most students may be respectful. But residents say it just takes a few to cause problems, and the number of students is growing.
It hasn’t always been this way. Elmhurst has long been a college neighborhood, but in the past it was mainly populated by professors and other school employees. Since the recession, the relatively affordability of the area has made it an attractive spot for investors, who see an opportunity to capitalize on the need for student housing.
On move-in day, Providence College is a-buzz with activity. It’s freshmen move-in day. The surrounding streets are teeming with upperclassmen, enjoying their last days of summer.
James, a junior who asked that his last name not be used, says he thinks PC is definitely a party school. He says police do try to tamp down on partying. Students can get slapped with a $500-fine, but that’s only after the police get two calls of complaint.
“So we get a free one right now. We may as well keep going until the free one,” said James.
James and others have found a way around the fine too. He says they’ll charge entrance fees for a party. If they can attract enough people James and his roommates will make enough money pay off the fine, and then some.
“So we’re hoping between 100-150 kids, you know 750, 200 bucks for beer,” said James. “We’ll make 550, you know, 50 bucks each, that’s not bad for partying.”
PC sophomores, Meredith Cooney and Kelsey McKenzie said they don’t think students here are any crazier than students anywhere else. But they recognize their partying probably isn’t endearing to them to residents.
“I feel like some of the neighbors might not like us though. Like down the road.”
But they say the ordinance won’t change the culture among students.
“I don’t think that’s going to have any role,” said the two, finishing each other’s sentences. “I think the same people are going to have the parties regardless if they have an extra roommate or not.”
Landlords are also opposed to the ordinance. Bob D’Amico owns several properties that would be subject, in the neighborhood. He said the rule infringes on the rights of property owners, and students. What’s more, it would have no impact on the apartment buildings where students have been partying for years.
“If there’s a single family home, say there’s a two-family home right next to that single family home,” said D’Amico. “I can put as many students in the two-family home. But I can only put three in the single family home. I don’t think that the legislation is rationally related to solving the partying problem.”
Around midnight on a Thursday, the neighborhood is transformed. Beer cans and red solo cups already litter the street and lawns of student rentals. Music blasts out of the houses. People cluster on balconies, shouting to the packs of students below roaming the streets in search of a party.
On one street, a patch of blacktop behind a row of houses hosts hundreds and hundreds of kids… packed in like sardines, pretty much all of them seem to be drinking. They’re making tons of noise.
Students say, things won’t this chaotic every night, but for a Thursday, this kind of partying is pretty much the norm.
Not all these students are from Providence College, but Steve Maurano, the public affairs officer for PC says the school works with the community and the police to address the issue. And he said they’re constantly working with students to discourage the party culture.
“I’m not telling you that all of our students that live in the neighborhood are angels because they certainly are not,” said Maurano. “But on the whole I think that the large majority of Providence college students who live off of our campus are respectful of the neighborhood in which they live, and the people that live around them.”
And that may be the case. But residents say whether it’s five percent, or one percent students; it’s still disrupting their lives, and something’s got to give. This ordinance is just one tool to attack what they call a “multi-pronged problem.”
But if it passes, landlords say they’ll challenge it in court. Some legal analysts say they may have a case; what’s the difference between a group of 22-year old students partying and a group of 23-year old non-students doing the same thing? The ordinance does, after all, apply to the entire city, home to plenty of bars and fresh graduates.
For now, Elmhurst residents hold out hope that this small step will get them a little more peace and quiet.
Editor's note: This article has been modified.
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