The Toga Party Is Over: Renting To Four Or More College Students Is Illegal Lodging House

by Rich Vetstein on November 15, 2011 · 1 comment

in Landlord Tenant Law, Massachusetts Real Estate Law, Permitting/Zoning, Rental Housing, Zoning

Update: SJC Reverses, Rules in favor of Landlords

Major Impact To College Rental Market: Landlords Cannot Rent To 4 or More Unrelated Adults In One Unit Without Lodging License

In a decision which will significantly impact landlords renting apartments to students near local colleges and universities and perhaps beyond Boston and Amherst, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled that renting to 4 or more unrelated students in one apartment unit is an illegal “lodging house” unless a special license is obtained.

In City of Worcester v. College Hill Properties LLC (Mass. App. Ct. Nov. 8, 2011), several landlords renting to Holy Cross students challenged the legality of the Massachusetts lodging housing law. The law requires a lodging housing license for any unit rented to four or more unrelated adults. City of Worcester officials cited the College Hill landlords for renting to 4 students in each apartment unit, without a proper license and without sprinkler systems. The students all signed a 12 month lease. The Housing Court sided with the city, and when the landlords balked, found them in contempt.

Lodging Housing Law

Although enacted nearly a hundred years ago in 1918, the court found that the lodging house law has relevance today with respect to the common practice of overcrowding persons in an unsuitable space and fire prevention. To obtain a lodging house license, an applicant must have sprinkler systems in the premises, which most landlords find too expensive to install.

The landlords argued that a group of four college students was a “family unit” not lodgers. While the landlords get credit for creative lawyering, the court didn’t buy the argument, holding that “we have no doubt that four or more unrelated adults, sharing housing while attending college, is not an arrangement that lends itself to the formation of a stable and durable household.”

Impact Outside College Towns?

Prior to this decision, housing authorities typically allowed 4 or more unrelated adults to occupy single apartments as roommates without a lodging license provided that minimum space requirements were met: 150 s.f. of living space for the first person, 100 s.f. for each additional person (3 occupants = 350 s.f. of living space); 70 s.f. of bedroom space for 1st person, plus 50 s.f. for additional person (120 s.f. for 2 persons in one bedroom).

After the College Hill decision, however, this generally accepted interpretation is now in question. The court did not mention adult roommates, nor did it make any distinction between undergraduates or adults. In my opinion, using the College Hill ruling, housing authorities, who want to crack down on unruly, crowded apartment dwellers, may seek to require lodging licenses for apartments occupied by 4 or more unrelated persons.

Boston: Rule Is 5+ Undergrads

In the City of Boston, a new zoning ordinance went into effect in 2008 prohibiting 5 or more undergraduate students from living in one apartment unit. We will see how the Boston Inspectional Services Dept. interprets the College Hill ruling.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate and landlord-tenant attorney. Please contact him if you need legal assistance with rental property legal issues.

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