Happily, on Aug. 18, 2021, three members of the Narragansett Town Council acted on behalf of the residents. By a three-two vote, Councilmembers Jesse Pugh, Ewa Dzwierzynski, and Deborah Kopech passed a no-more-than-three students per rental unit ordinance residents have been waiting 25 years to achieve. Note that the last council, headed by Matt Mannix, Jill Lawler and Rick Lema, also listened to the residents and passed this same ordinance in August 2020. However, the Narragansett 2100 landlord group sued the town citing a procedural error, claiming that everyone wanting to speak was not heard at that Zoom meeting. Last June, Judge Taft-Carter ruled in their favor.
Thanks to Council President Jess Pugh who put the ordinance back on the agenda, residents had another chance to make the case to our new council. Jesse Pugh has steadfastly supported adoption of this ordinance. However, neither Deb Kopech nor Ewa Dzwierznski voiced support during last year’s campaign. Yet, to their credit, they kept an open mind, actually listened to the residents, studied the facts and voted yes with Jesse to pass the ordinance. Residents and resident organizations showed up in force and presented factual data showing that Narragansett’s residential population declined by 8.4% since the last census while rental properties have increased by 20%. Council President Pugh did a great job running a packed house hearing, insuring that all 66 people signed up to speak did so, along with at least one late comer.
Since this was an in-person hearing it will be difficult for Narragansett 2100 to claim everyone was not heard this time around. Especially after Joe Lembo’s disorderly outburst to bully Catherine Celeberto who was simply reciting the low prices Mr. Lembo paid for some of his rental properties. Narragansett 2100 claimed price rises in Narragansett are because of the 2020 three-student ordinance that was overturned before it was enforced? Since Mr. Lembo falsely claimed Ms. Celeberto disparaged his character, Council President Pugh gave him the chance to defend himself at the end of the meeting.
Many residents emphasized or re-affirmed data presented by various resident associations. Many others told their personal horror stories at the hands of student renters. To summarize, these stories describe the loss of one’s most important neighborhood attribute. Neighbors! The loss of one’s neighbors to transient student populations changes a neighborhood forever. The only remedy is to bring families back. I believe this indisputable fact influenced both Councilwoman Dzwierzinski and Councilwoman Kopech. In any event, along with Jesse Pugh they both studied the facts, listened to the residents and demonstrated the courage of their convictions. We cannot ask any more of our elected leaders.
As expected, the two no votes were Patrick Murray and Susan Cicilline-Buonanno. When it comes to real estate, Councilman Murray is a walking conflict of interest. Councilwoman Cicillini-Buonanno justified their no votes claiming they support a limit of four because it was heavily vetted by the former Ad Hoc Sub-Committee on Zoning. While true, this comment is misleading and self-serving. As chair of the former Ad-Hoc Sub-Committee On Zoning, prior to presenting our Subcommittee recommendations to the Town Council on July 13, 2015, I, along with subcommittee member Joe Santos, vetted them with Solicitor Dawson Hodgson to be sure he would support their legality. Dawson said he would only support our subcommittee recommendations if we changed from three to four unrelated. His key reason for wanting four was that Susan Cicilline-Buonanno and Patrick Murray (both were on that Council), made it clear that they would only support four. Thus, the two council members who said on August 18, 2021 that four was heavily vetted are the reasons it became four! Our subcommittee really wanted three. To gain Patrick and Susan’s support back then, we had to make it four.
While a second reading is needed to make it law, along with a plan for its enforcement, Narragansett residents can take pride in this achievement. Three members of our Town Council demonstrated the courage and self-confidence to support residents who elected them, in the face of a fifty million-dollar per year rental industry and a University that has woefully neglected its student housing needs for decades.