Quoting from the official Providence City Council website, as updated Sept. 17th.:
Council President Luis A. Aponte, who co-sponsored the ordinance, said that the legislation will help ensure student housing does not encroach on single-family residential neighborhoods. “R-1 zones are separate and distinct from R-2 and R-3 zones for a reason. R-1 and R-1A zones are made up predominantly of single-family properties that are designed for individual households. These properties were not designed as rooming houses, or for use as group quarters, and the recent examples of properties in R-1 zones being marketed to college students is a cause for concern,” said Aponte. “Additionally, we as a city want to ensure that we maintain our single-family housing stock for families who want to live here.”
Let's step aside from the specific matter of students. I know that the biggest contrary feedback I've heard so far from people has been that the students at Providence College are nasty, brutish, horrible people (and some of them are. . . ). Let's talk about the general principle that Aponte is outlining.
Aponte is not just speaking to problems of students. He's outlining a view that zoning is a tool to be used to limit growth and housing change in the neighborhood. He's also framing the issue as if families only live in single-family homes. And furthermore, he's using zoning as a way not just to control building types, but what types of people can live in building types.
Zoned exclusion is not about "preserving" anything. No one was going to tear down or destroy homes (we can debate on the margins about how well the students were likely to take care of housing, but that's a side issue). The issue at hand is excluding types of groups of people, and types of new housing.
This is a statement against "boarding houses", meaning places for people to live who don't live in the nuclear family ideal. It's city government legislating family types. It's not overdramatic at all to say that so long as there is such a thing as R-1 and R-1A, Providence residents will not be free.