Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Boston Zoning Commission Passes Rule Limiting Student Off-Campus Apartments to Four Occupants

The Boston Zoning Commission unanimously passed an amendment to the zoning code that allows only four or fewer off-campus undergraduate students to share a single apartment. The amendment clarifies the definition of a "family" under the city's zoning code after a recent court case and subsequent consent decree.

The hearing room was packed both by supporters and opponents of the proposal, according to several people who attended. [Read their reports below.] The Boston Globe story posted on includes pictures of a long line of people waiting to speak in the hearing room. The meeting was long, beginning promptly at 9:00 am and continuing until 12:45 pm.

There were some indications that organizations of local realtors, small property owners, and students may have been planning to attend the hearing en masse. Supporters of the amendment were apparently offered a cute button to wear during the event.

The Boston City Council unanimously passed the original petition in December 2007, while the Board of the Boston Redevelopment Authority passed the zoning amendment in February 2008. The Zoning Commission approval was the last hurdle for it to pass.

Mayor Thomas Menino recently wrote a letter in support of the zoning rule change in advance of the Zoning Commission's consideration of the proposal.

WHDH has an online story that includes an image of Boston College's campus. Does WHDH realize that the zoning rule applies to off-campus housing, not on-campus housing?

Summary of the Arguments Supporting and Opposing the Amendment

One Brighton resident who attended the meeting, Sandy Furman, spoke in support of the amendment. He wrote this description of the main arguments of those both supporting and opposing the zoning amendment. (Furman did not take notes at the meeting, but wrote this summary from memory later in the day -- he hopes he remembered it all accurately.)
Interestingly, the proposed amendment had the support of Mayor Menino, a unanimous City Council, and a unanimous BRA Board.

The meeting room was packed, standing room only, with a line out the door into the corridor. I am arithmetically challenged, but I'd say there were well over a hundred people present, perhaps several hundred. The atmosphere was highly charged, with strong emotions on display from both sides. Tensions were also high.

Councilor Ross began with a PowerPoint presentation:

  • After the Sang Vo case, which had been brought by Greater Boston Legal Services and resolved with a consent decree, it became open season for landlords to buy up Victorians, two family and three family houses, and convert them into student apartments, at exorbitant rates.

  • This was done especially in the neighborhood he represents, Mission Hill, but also in other neighborhoods such as Allston and Brighton.

  • This development caused massive increases in the values of these homes, with commensurate increases in property taxes for all who live nearby.

  • Quality of life issues such as noise, litter, public urinating, etc., became larger problems for the communities.

  • Families and young professionals found themselves displaced at worst and unable to afford housing at best.

  • Most (he said all) major cities around the country have some kind of restriction on the number of people who reside in houses/apartments.

  • Some of them discriminate explicitly against students. (“Discriminate” is my wording, not his.)

  • His conclusion is that this plan, to redefine family in the zoning code so as to exclude five or more undergraduate students from any unit, is legal.

  • The plan is not a panacea that solves all problems, but it is an important step towards saving and, in some cases, taking back our neighborhoods.

  • By limiting housing units to no more than four students, the average rental of those units would fall from $5000-6000 per month to approximately $3000 per month, which he views as affordable.

  • Dispersing students more broadly rather than concentrating them in clusters or "ghettos" benefits the embattled neighborhoods while having a minimal impact on the other neighborhoods that might inherit some students.

After he finished speaking there was a parade of proponents of the amendment. This included elected officials – Councilor Sam Yoon, other City Councilors, a representative from the Mayor's office, a representative from the BRA, and numerous residents, including Alex Selvig, Shelby Marshall, and myself. Most of the speakers were from the Mission Hill neighborhood.

We mostly echoed Ross's comments, while adding personal stories.

I, for example, described the rapid turnover of the Foster Street, Kirkwood Road, Radnor Road, Gerald Road, Greycliff Road, and Lane Park area in the few years since the enactment of the Sang Vo consent decree, and that I was weary of being told that "this is a college town, man". I also pointed out that I personally am prepared to risk that the value of my home might be adversely affected by this proposal, if it will save the neighborhood.

Then the barrage kicked in from the opponents.

There were at least as many opponents, probably more. They appeared well organized. They included a Northeastern University economics professor who claims to live in Mission Hill, some students from Northeastern University, a real estate lawyer, and numerous property owners -- including an 82-year-old sympathetic woman -- several of whom claim to live in the community.

For them it was all about rights to property and profit. (Do you detect a bit of bias here?) Half or more of those speaking in opposition identified themselves as being involved in real estate: owners, sales, and/or rentals.

Their arguments included the following:

  • The proposal is nothing more than a back door attempt at rent control, something for which Councilor Ross has been fighting his entire career.

  • The proposal unfairly discriminates against a class of people, i.e., undergraduate students.

  • We, as residents, should appreciate the wonderful things that the institutions in general, and the students in particular, bring to our neighborhoods.

  • The proposal is misguided because it unfairly (as well as unlawfully) penalizes property owners, most of whom (all of whom if the speakers can be believed) are responsible, and should not be held responsible for the bad behavior of a few bad apples.

  • The problems, such as they (minimally are), can and should be solved by enhanced enforcement of existing laws and regulations -- police, ISD, the universities themselves.

  • If the change is enacted, then it will be impossible to enforce given both the very limited resources of ISD and the privacy issues.

  • If taxes do in fact go down, the ripple effect on city services such as schools, let alone ISD, will be severe.

  • Rents will not go down because the parents of these students will pay whatever they have to.

  • The "Starbuck's Crowd" will come into the neighborhood and pay rents equal to the student housing rental rates. The result is that there won't be any restoration of families or young working people to the neighborhoods. (I guess real families don't drink Starbuck's -- which is why, for example, in Brighton Center we obviously cannot sustain Starbuck's, CafĂ© Nation, and Athans).

  • The restriction will increase the problem by spreading students further out into more houses and more neighborhoods -- bringing the problems, such as they are, to other neighborhoods.

  • A landlord known to reside in Newton, far away from BC, who owns several properties, spoke of the wonderful improvements he made in his house, and the great tenants the students make.

I must say, the "Starbuck's Crowd" argument is downright odd because it contradicts two of the other arguments. If a non-student class of people -- this "Starbuck's Crowd" -- would really move into the apartments currently housing excessive numbers of students and pay the same price the students are currently paying, then the zoning amendment will neither result in rent control nor cause property owners to suffer financially. Someone needs to go back to the talking points.

I have not heard that anyone from the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, a trade association, spoke in opposition to the amendment. The Boston Herald noted that "some real estate groups are rallying their members against the proposal," yet only quotes GBREB as "[contending that] the proposal is legally flawed and won’t stand up to a challenge in court." Their GBREB website makes no mention of the issue.

Another Brighton Resident Summarizes the Meeting

Another Brighton resident, Shelby Marshall, spoke at the meeting in support the zoning amendment. He summarized the meeting:
"Councilor Ross did a wonderful job laying out the arguments for the amendment. He has really done his homework. Quite a few officials spoke strongly, and then lots of community members spoke. Many were from Mission Hill, and a few people from the Boston College neighborhood... took our turns, too.

The opposition came down to three basic arguments: they'll lose money, it won't work, and it's discriminatory. Oh, yes, and to make sure they don't lose money, they'll raise their rents so that the few students who remain will pay more. And, by the way, the government's job is to raise taxes, not to regulate the market. So higher rents, higher house prices, and higher tax rates are good.

The landlords who spoke... swore that they and every other investor they know takes wonderful care of their houses (which they buy in awful condition and fix up, by the way), better than many of the neighbors; don't let students party in their houses; and believe that student behavior should be regulated -- something they would love to discuss with neighbors, colleges, and city authorities."

Hmmmm... I detect just the slightest bit of sarcasm there.

Simple examination of the police blotter demonstrates that students are partying in the houses, and that many landlords are not regulating the student behavior. As for the condition of the party houses, I can't imagine anyone in the "Starbuck's Crowd" wanting to move into one of them after they have been packed with students for years -- unless the units undergo substantial renovation after the students move out.

UPDATE: The full Boston Globe story has now appeared. It includes the "Starbuck's Crowd" quotation. The enforcement mechanism, according to Councilor Ross last month and, now, an official with the city's Inspectional Services Department, will enforce the zoning change in response to complaints, not proactively:
Enforcement of the law would be driven by neighborhood complaints, city officials said.

"As with other zoning violations, the Inspectional Services Department will develop an enforcement strategy to respond to any property owners reported or found to be in violation of the code," Dorothy Joyce, the mayor's press secretary, said in a written statement. "We will work with local colleges and universities to educate students and property owners about the new zoning. As [with] all zoning, we expect all property owners to adhere to the letter of the law."

Officials have not determined the specifics of enforcement, including possible fines.

The text of the zoning amendment is quite brief, merely changing the definition of what constitutes a "family" under the zoning code. No enforcement procedure or penalties was part of the amendment, but will instead be developed by the city after the Mayor signs the amendment.

UPDATE: The Allston-Brighton TAB has also come out with their story which quotes Councilor Stephen Murphy repeatedly. Councilor Murphy claims that the idea for the zoning change came from conversations dating to 1998 between him and late Allston-Brighton District 9 City Councilor Brian Honan:
"The late Councilor Brian Honan and I talked about this in 1998 before [Michael] Ross got on to the body. It’s been an issue predominantly in student neighborhoods for a number of years."
Councilor Honan died unexpectedly in 2002.

The TAB did not ask Councilor Murphy the obvious question about why he and Councilor Honan would have been talking about this zoning change back in 1998. The city had zoning language in place in 1998 limiting apartment occupancy to four or fewer unrelated people, which led to the Boston court case and subsequent consent decree in 2003 invalidating that zoning language. It was the 2003 court case that allowed property owners to pack students into apartments legally for the last five years. Before 2003, students could be packed into the apartments illegally -- and from now forward they could be packed into apartments illegally, too -- meaning that the problem in 1998 was one of enforcement, not of the zoning language in place at the time.

I take this to mean that Councilor Murphy was actually referring to 1998 conversations about what to do about illegal apartment-packing, not that he and the late Councilor Honan were talking in 1998 about instituting a zoning change like the one adopted yesterday.


Adam said...

Alrite, now with this out of the way, all that needs to happen is BC builds new dorms on the new land and the students will no longer be disrupting the neighborhood with their parties.

Unforgettable said...

BC has been trying for a long time to build new dorms on the land it purchased. They have created a 10-year plan that will not only build new dorms but new academic buildings as well.

However, the neighboring cities, though fed up with the noise that is normal for college students, are against the noise that construction will bring.

BC is trying to do its job; it's the residents that now need to do theirs but allowing BC to build.

Christopher said...

as a recent student i find this whole situation quite interesting. i'm neither for nor against the amendment, because i dont know if it will work. i certainly dont think there needs to be the cramming of students into small places obviously not suited for that many students. but i also dont know if this law will change anything. for one, if its complaint driven, then it will be hard to track where it is being done, unless neighbors stake out houses/families. for those places where it does result in just 4 students, i think there could still be the loud and obnoxious parties. of course, if this results in a few parties and better living the rest of the time, i suppose that is good...

i'm glad for the neighbors it passed, i just hope it actually does something. i think BC in particular is going to work well with this by banning students from family houses altogether. hopefully both of those things (regardless of where on campus housing goes) well work to restore brighton to a quiet neighborhood

SandyF said...

BC has plenty of land on main campus for dorms - Edmonds Hall site, More Hall site, Mods, etc. No credible argument has been presented as to why they can't build dorms there and put other types of structures on the new property - classrooms, faculty offices, admin. buildings, library, museum, theater, recplex, etc. People aren't opposed to all development on the seminary. Just dorms - which can go elsewhere.

Toothchipped said...

Michael I am a BU student writing a follow-up article on this topic, would you mind if I emailed you a few questions about this?