Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Local Impacts of Proposed City Ordinance on Student Off-Campus Dwellings

The Boston City Council is considering an ordinance that would petition the Boston Zoning Commission and the Board of the Boston Redevelopment Authority to ban more than four off-campus students from living together in a single apartment. The proposed ordinance will be presented and discussed at Wednesday night's meeting of the Allston Civic Association.

A recent court case and subsequent consent decree defined what kind of living arrangements constitute an illegal boarding-house, which, in effect, loosened up the restrictions. As long as unrelated residents of an apartment shared common space, such as kitchen and bathrooms, do not have locks on individual bedroom doors, and don't individually rent from the owner, then the occupants are considered a "family" unit that can legally rent an apartment together. Off-campus student housing in Allston-Brighton often lawfully exceeds four students per apartment. "Club Kirkwood" is one notable example.

Can students be separately categorized in an ordinance such as this one? Likely yes, according to a government housing specialist contacted recently, because students do not consitute a protected housing class under federal or state law. If Ross's proposed ordinance were to restrict housing on the basis of race, however, it would be illegal, because ethnicity is a protected housing class. (On a related, albeit not identical, issue, Boston College administration officials have recently proposed instituting a ban on their undergraduates from living in 1- and 2-family houses in three zip-codes in Allston-Brighton and Newton, a policy which BC officials have stated publicly several times has been checked for its legality.)

District 8 City Councilor Michael Ross wrote in a January 25, 2008 letter to John Palmieri, the Director of the BRA:
Since [2003] the current definition of family remains unresolved, causing an ambiguity in the law and its enforcement. As a result, unscrupulous landlords have taken advantage of this limbo by packing upwards of ten students into college apartments that once housed families. These actions have subsequently raised rents to a level where virtually no one can afford to live within certain neighborhoods of the city. The proposed change to the zoning code will require that landlords cap the number of students living within one dwelling to four, thereby restoring a semblance of control to what has become an escalating crisis.
BC's student newspaper, The Heights, ran a news story on the issue and also an editorial opposing the proposed ordinance. The editorial says that the proposed ordinance treats students "unfairly" and is "counter-productive to the constituency it seeks to placate" -- i.e., "neighbor's concerns about loud parties and poorly-kept residences."

As the aforementioned example of Club Kirkwood indicated, however, the problems of the over-crowded housing are code violations and dangerous conditions. I wrote back in October 2007:
As Bill Mills noted at the October 16th meeting of the BC Task Force, they allegedly found smoke detectors had been removed from the ceilings, missing CO detectors, underage drinking, and so on. A sting operation was planned for inspectors from the city's Inspectional Services Department, which identified other problems -- such as residents illegally housed in the basement, others housed in parts of the attic that don't meet height requirements, and locks on the bedroom doors (that might have constituted an illegal boarding house).
The news story in The Heights makes a series of unattributed statements, some of which appear to be factually incorrect. An example:
The effect [of the ordinance on student-occupied off-campus housing] is not wholly seen in the Brighton area that surrounds BC, mainly because most of the houses are owned by the people living in them.
The owner-occupied housing rate was only 19.3% in Allston-Brighton in the 2000 U. S. Census; in Brighton alone, the rate was 23.6%. Of owner-occupied housing in Allston-Brighton, only 26% of the units had more than 0.5 persons per room, while 49% of renter-occupied housing units did. The conclusion from the census data: most of Allston-Brighton's housing stock is renter-occupied, and the rental units are, on average, more packed with occupants than the owner-occupied units. It is hard to know where The Heights gathered its facts since so many of the story's statements, such as the one above, have no attribution.

Small Property Owners of America opposes the proposed ordinance, providing a series of arguments against it: displacement and high rents; de facto rent control and devaluation; housing shortage and higher rents; and college and university concerns.

Councilors Ross and Ciommo to Attend ACA Meeting on Proposed Ordinance

Councilors Michael Ross and Mark Ciommo will be appearing at a meeting Wednesday night of the Allston Civic Association in order to discuss the proposed ordinance.

Councilor Ross submitted the original petition in December 2007. His office is spearheading the effort to pass the ordinance. In a community-wide letter sent out recently by staff member Johanna Sena, she anticipates that "this issue will be coming before the BRA Board for their approval at the end of February and before the Zoning Commission in early March."

The text of the ordinance proposes a change in the definition of "family" under the Boston Zoning Code, so that it would be defined as:
'Family' one person or two or more persons related by blood, marriage, adoption or other analogous family union occupying a dwelling unit and living as a single, nonprofit housekeeping unit, provided that a group of five (5) or more students enrolled at or attending a post-secondary educational institution shall not be deemed to constitute a family. A group residence, limited... shall be deemed a family.

The meeting of the Allston Civic Association will be:

Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Honan-Allston Library
300 North Harvard Street
Allston, MA 02134

Other items on the agenda are listing at Harry Mattison's blog.

Some questions I would like to see addressed in the meeting:
  • How will the city prevent the landlords from obtaining zoning variances in order to chop up the housing into smaller and smaller units to keep each unit's occupancy below five?
  • What is that anticipated increase in expense for off-campus housing for various neighborhoods of the city, e.g., Brighton, where occupancy would suddenly switch from, say, ten tenants to four?
  • What are the universities' plans for dealing with the added increase in off-campus housing that will result? In particular, what would Boston College possibly do to provide on-campus housing for its students with greatest financial need who might not be able to deal with the rental increase?
  • If half the Radnor/Kirkwood/Upper Foster area off-campus students, for example, were suddenly required to find alternative housing, where do real estate professionals believe that they would be most likely to move in the current housing market?
  • What fraction of the impacted rental units are suitable for family housing, and what fraction are excessively-sized such that they are beyond the needs and/or means of most families?

UPDATE: UniversalHub has a series of comments posted about this topic.

1 comment:

Unnamed Witness said...

This is not going to make any difference at all. The city has never done much to enforce limits on the number of people in a unit. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of illegal apartments all over Boston, and nothing is done. Overcrowding is harder to prove than an illegal apartment. Inspectional Services is just not serious about these types of problems.