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State high court rules that Worcester college student apartments are not ‘lodging houses’

The state’s highest court has rejected an attempt by the city of Worcester to declare that apartments rented out to four college students were “lodgings” and fell under the state lodging house law.

“While we recognize that the city seeks to protect student safety, and apparently regards the apartments at issue here as being the equivalent of dormitories, such concerns are better addressed through enforcement of applicable zoning ordinances and provisions of the sanitary and fire safety codes,” the Supreme Judicial Court wrote in an opinion today.

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The court drew a distinction between tenants and lodgers in lodging houses.

Tenants have the “exclusive legal right to occupy and use the entirety of the property. The rooms within the apartment are not rooms ‘in the house of another,’” the court said.

“By contrast, a lodger occupies only a specific room or rooms within a house or apartment that is itself owned or rented by someone else,” the court said in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Barbara Lenk.

The city issued citations to owners of the two-family and three-family properties in November 2009, declaring that if four unrelated people or more lived in the units, the apartments were lodging houses.

In January 2010, after defendants failed to comply with the request to reduce the number of occupants to three, the city filed complaints in Housing Court. A Housing Court judge ordered the defendants to stop operating unlicensed lodging houses. The judge also found the property owners in contempt of the order.

The defendants appealed and found a sympathetic ear in the SJC.

“We conclude that the dwelling units are not lodgings and the properties are not lodging houses,” under state law, Lenk wrote in the case, City of Worcester v. College Hill Properties LLC.

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