By JAMES KENNEDY
PROVIDENCE — Zoning can be a positive tool. A rule to keep housing off wetlands, or a protection of farmland or forest from development is the type of thing that a large part of the public agrees with. Zoning can also be a negative, used to discriminate against people. This type of zoning, called “exclusionary zoning,” also is a negative for our environment.
A zoning change proposed by City Council member Jo-Ann Ryan of Ward 5 (Elmhurst) is just that type of exclusionary zoning, and environmentalists should contact their council members to make sure it doesn’t pass.
Ryan opposes noise violations by college students in her neighborhood, but instead of proposing better enforcement of noise ordinances, she has sponsored a change to Zones 1 and 1A of the city’s zoning, to limit the number of occupants in “single-family homes” when those persons are defined as “college students.”
Council member Seth Yurdin, whose district includes College Hill, has emphasized that the disruptions faced by residents by students can be stopped more easily with less-extreme measures.
Zoning to keep groups of students out doesn’t make sense for the types of large homes that exist in Elmhurst. Many of the homes, as described in the Providence Journal, have five bedrooms, but when occupied by students, Ryan proposes that no more than three people should be allowed to live in these homes.
Traditional communities are something Rhode Island has all over the state. Places that we all enjoy to visit, such as Newport or Wickford, were developed before modern ideas of zoning took place. In that time, small homes, apartment buildings and mansions might all appear on the same street.
Starting in the 20th century, zoning became a way to keep “separate” uses apart. The idea of a “Zone 1 and 1A,” which in Providence’s code means areas exclusively saved for larger single-family-style homes, is itself an outgrowth of the idea that people with the means to own single-family homes shouldn’t have to live side by side with people who can’t.
Allowing students or others to occupy large homes and repurpose them as group housing adds walkable density to neighborhoods that might otherwise be robbed of it by this type of exclusionary zoning. Density is a necessary prerequisite of successful transit, because the viability of frequent transit is affected on an exponential curve in relation to how many people live in a place per square mile. Walking and biking, though more loosely affected by density, are also aided by having more people in an area.
Chasing students from a neighborhood not only undermines the density and affordability of student neighborhoods, but also can lead to overflow into other places — especially when housing growth is zoned out, this overflow can lead to rising rents, displacing low-income people. Housing density and housing growth in cities are some of the best tools to create affordable, sustainable neighborhoods that prevent sprawl and help protect the types of natural areas that land-use regulations are supposed to be preserving.
In the end, it’s unclear why proponents of this zoning change would expect it to work to affect the issue at hand. If students live five to a house, they may have parties and be loud. Are they suddenly not going to do the same because they live three to a house?
City Council voted 10-3 on Sept. 3 to pass the provision, but it has to pass a second time, at the council’s Sept. 17 meeting, to become law. Knocking just one yes vote off of the tally gives the mayor the option to veto this bill. Environmentalists need to stand up to prevent Providence from becoming the next exclusionary cul-de-sac.
Providence resident James Kennedy runs the blog Transport Providence.