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Open Letter: Why City Council Should Defeat Councilwoman Ryan's Proposed Housing Limits




Hello Councilwoman Ryan et. al.,

I respectfully write to you to oppose your proposition of limiting student housing within your district. I am neither a student nor an Elmhurst resident, though I live in Mt. Hope which is also a student-dominated neighborhood. The concerns I bring through my blog Transport Providence have to do with land use and transportation issues, and I see your proposition as causing a lot of negative side effects.

Leave it to me to write a dry letter and accompany it with a
flamboyant picture, but this image just captures the sentiment
too (damn?) well.
With respect to the core problem, which as stated in the Projo article seems to be students having loud parties, I think that it's very reasonable for City Council to find arrangements to limit noise, and if existing noise ordinances are not working, to find creative measures to address that problem. I work early in the morning as a substitute teacher, and though I have not yet had any particular problems with partiers on my block, I know that if I had to deal with that problem, I would be very upset. The issue of binge drinking, whether real or perceived, is also a concern, and I would join you in trying to find active solutions to that problem.

Limiting student housing has a number of ill effects. It increases the cost of housing and potentially puts certain housing out of reach of students or other people. It causes students, who may or may not make noise, to face increased debt, as student debt is not only taken on for tuition but also for housing costs. At a transportation level, it spreads people out and makes it more likely that they will need a car, causing increased congestion, pollution, and parking difficulties. It also means that areas that may be very well built to accommodate transit, like Elmhurst, have a reduction in density (density, for instance, increases the viability of transit frequency not linearly, as one might expect, but exponentially, meaning a small downward adjustment in density can decimate the viability of useful transit in a neighborhood). That density is both what allows frequent transit, and is also a key component to business life and community life in the districts where it exists. Imagine, for instance, the difference in activity level on Thayer St. when students leave the East Side, and all the money that would be lost to that business district if students were dispersed.

On the flip side, having students face higher costs for housing also means that those students may outbid lower income families who need high density housing, worsening gentrification, without any of the ascendant benefits to the economy that tend to come from more natural patterns of gentrification. While many of us would probably welcome the revitalization of neighborhoods, this would actually have the opposite effect.

At a civil liberties level, I think it is a violation for the city to be creating definitions of "types" of residents. There may or may not be a clear way to define a student, but why should the city have the right to subject students to different treatment than anyone else? In buildings that may have five bedrooms, would council find it reasonable to kick a family out that has three children? Or even two? The answer is that if council were to treat students similarly to other groups of people, those families would have to move. There's no safety justification for that, so there can't be any safety justification for doing it for students either.

In addition, I think defining what counts as a student may be trickier than expected. Would City Council, for instance, push a family out of its home if it went over the occupancy limit but one parent decided to go back to school? If that doesn't fit the core idea of what people think of as students--I'm assuming, here, loud twenty-somethings--then would City Council set up an ordinance based on age? Would such an ordinance withstand legal challenge? The entire concept feels murky, and strikes me as putting the city at great risk of litigation.

As someone who is no longer student age, I nonetheless remember the burden of these types of laws every time I pay a student loan payment. I fear for the future economic and ecological viability of Providence as well. I will do my very best to mobilize people around me to oppose any limits on student housing. I urge you to approach the valid noise and drinking problems your residents have identified in another way.

Thank you.

James Kennedy

cc: City Council of Providence, Planning Dept. of Providence, Mayor's Office of Providence

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Check out the RI Future article outlining the ten councilpersons who voted for exclusionary zoning (Thank you to Dan McGowen for the data for that post, from Twitter). A second vote next Thursday is needed to pass this measure, and unless it stays at ten yes votes, the mayor will need to sign it into law.

I reached out to Brett Smiley and Evan England of the Mayor's office, and Brett wrote me this morning to say that he is talking within the administration to figure out what the mayor's position is. I will update further when I find out.


We need to change just one Council vote, and get a mayoral veto, but I'm hopeful we can change more than one Council vote.

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2 comments:

  1. This whole situation is a pure example of NIMBYism. As an Elmhurst resident (not by choice he he he) I see the Student population as a vital asset that is not fully utilized for lack of a better word. It's hard for me to compliment Elmhurst since I prefer more traditional, urban and historic neighborhoods, but overall, elmhurst is a nice neighborhood especially in the southern part near Pleasant valley parkway where most of the houses were built between the early 1900's to the 1930's. A lot of Neighborhoods that are surrounded by college campuses are usually vibrant, creative and bustling with pedestrians i.e. College Hill/Thayer st. I call that the College town effect. Elmhurst doesn't have that. The Student housing limits will not take Elmhurst in that direction. I really hope Elmhurst becomes the next "hip"/ vibrant neighborhood. I've seen some progress on that progress on that front it the past few years with the opening of several new businesses. Student housing limits would only stifle that momentum.

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  2. I haven't been in Elmhurst for a while, but used to have friends who lived in the midst of several blocks of triple deckers that seemingly were used for nothing but student housing. Their biggest complaint, and I observed this, was the roving troupes of young people bearing red solo cups from building to building. Definitely created noise issues, and those were also probably the only nights when the streets were completely parked full of cars.

    I've heard from members of planning that a big part of the reason for the no-parking ordinances that we've long had is to try to prevent student housing, and of course, so are most of the laws regarding leasing to unrelated people. Nice anonymous levers that don't directly target a population.

    I agree with you, combating public drunkenness and noise issues by targeting a particular population that is actually spending money isn't the right way to go. Who else is going to move in if the students are forced out? Where are the students going to go? Further afield, further requiring even more parking lots at the colleges and more traffic on the streets.

    I also agree with Mark on the vibrancy a young population brings. I used to live near Thayer and thought that long time residents sigh of relief in winter that they could go enjoy Thayer again was misguided. Living further up the east side now, I don't get that same buzz and hum from the people out and about in the neighborhood. In some ways I miss that vibrancy.

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