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The Boston Globe

Metro

Spotlight follow-up

Colleges to give data on off-campus housing

Walsh wants addresses to fight overcrowding

Mayor Martin J. Walsh met with college leaders Tuesday, including Sister Janet Eisner of Emmanuel College.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Mayor Martin J. Walsh met with college leaders Tuesday, including Sister Janet Eisner of Emmanuel College.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Tuesday that more than 20 universities in Boston have largely agreed to disclose the addresses of students living off campus — a long-resisted step that he called critical to combatting chronic overcrowding that he said imperils student safety.

“They don’t see a problem with it,’’ Walsh said after emerging from an hourlong, closed-door meeting with the presidents and representatives of the schools. “Not one college pushed back.’’

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But if no college actively pushed back, one did emerge from the meeting saying it was not ready to commit to the plan. Boston College says it has continuing concerns about violating student privacy.

The mayor met with officials from Boston University, Boston College, Northeastern University, Suffolk University, and other city colleges at the Parkman House, the city-owned mansion on Beacon Hill.

In recent weeks, Walsh had said that if he encountered resistance from university leaders, he would consider introducing a City Council ordinance to force disclosure of off-campus addresses. The information, he said, is essential so the city can to identify overcrowded apartments and protect the health and safety of tens of thousands of university students.

Boston College voiced its concerns after the meeting, but the mayor said he heard no objections at the session from any college officials. Several representatives pledged speedy compliance.

“It’s fine; it’s not a problem,’’ James McCarthy, Suffolk University’s president, said outside the Parkman House afterward. “We’ll move immediately to get the address lists that they’re looking for. . . . It’s a safety issue.’’

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The extraordinary meeting came one month after the Globe Spotlight Team uncovered widespread overcrowding in Boston’s college neighborhoods, where students confront living hazards ranging from rats and bedbugs, to smoke detectors dangling uselessly from ceilings, to bedrooms stuffed illegally into basements or firetrap attics.

The hazardous conditions are especially acute in sections of Brighton near Boston College, where a Spotlight Team survey found 80 percent of the students questioned there said they had more than four undergraduates in their apartments.

A city zoning provision prohibits more than four full-time undergraduates from sharing a house or apartment, a provision that the Globe investigation found is widely ignored by students, landlords, and property managers.

After a fire last year that killed 22-year-old Binland Lee, a Boston University student, community activists called on city universities to release the addresses of their off-campus students to enable the city to build a database to detect dangerous, overcrowded living conditions.

Only Boston University complied.

Boston College — which has hundreds of students living off campus, frequently in overcrowded apartments — has said that federal student privacy laws do not allow the school to disclose where their students live off campus, even though federal regulators say schools that designate addresses as directory information are generally permitted to do so.

After Tuesday’s meeting with Walsh, Boston College said its lawyers are studying the mayor’s request. A college spokesman said the school wants to make sure it abides by federal privacy rules, which he said allow students to bar the release of this kind of information.

“If a student opts out, the university cannot disclose even directory information without consent,’’ BC spokesman Jack Dunn said in a statement. “A very large number of college students choose to opt out, which makes the off-campus list of directory addresses incomplete.’’

But Walsh said those objections were not voiced yesterday when he asked university and college officials to comply with his request.

“We will do that, and I think that’s the sense of everyone there,’’ said Sister Janet Eisner, president of Emmanuel College, which has about 1,900 students in Boston, about a quarter of whom live off campus.

John A. Nucci, a Suffolk vice president who attended the session, said Walsh could not have been clearer.

“He said he’s going to get the information that he needs, and he’s expecting universities to provide it,’’ said Nucci, a former Boston city councilor, School Committee member, and clerk of Suffolk Superior Court. “We got that message loud and clear.’’

Walsh appeared to allay the privacy concerns of a number of college officials by saying that the city did not need the names of students, only the addresses where they live.

Northeastern University said through a spokesman afterward that it will provide the information.

Carol Ridge-Martinez, executive director of the Allston Brighton Community Development Corporation, which last year implored the universities to release the off-campus address data, hailed the colleges’ promise to cooperate.

“It’s an excellent step in the right direction,’’ she said. “We’re pleased that this information is going to be monitored. It will help [the city] to determine where the problem buildings might be.’’

The mayor was joined at Tuesday’s session by department heads including Police Commissioner William B. Evans and William Christopher, the newly installed commissioner of the city’s Inspectional Services Department.

Walsh also again urged colleges and universities to live up to promises they have made to build more dormitories so they can move students back onto campuses and out of neighborhoods. Rowdy behavior and rents driven up by the flood of student tenants have angered longtime residents in college neighborhoods. They say the practice of cramming college students into overcrowded units is rendering housing unaffordable to them while endangering students themselves.

The number of undergraduate and graduate students living off campus in the city has soared 36 percent to more than 45,000 from 2006 to 2013, according to a Spotlight Team analysis of reports private colleges submit to Boston’s city clerk and data provided to the Globe by three public schools.

Globe reporters and correspondents canvassed block after block of student rental apartments and found overcrowding rampant.

In a Spotlight survey of 266 students living off campus in Boston, nearly a third of respondents said at least five undergraduates were living together, in apparent violation of the 2008 zoning rule.

In addition to demanding the off-campus addresses from the colleges, Walsh has vowed to increase the number of city inspectors to check the city’s 154,000 rental units for possible code infractions. City officials were quoted in the Spotlight report as saying that, even if they had the student addresses, they did not have the staffing to check up on cases of probable overcrowding.

The mayor also said he will begin to levy $300 daily fines on scofflaw landlords who repeatedly violate city and state regulations but escape harsh penalties because of toothless enforcement.

The mayor said the city intends to build a database that would show whether some apartments are overcrowded because undergraduates from multiple universities are sharing the space. He said city inspectors will use the database to target inspections and make sure units are up to code.

Tuesday’s meeting was the first in what Walsh said will be a series of sit-downs with college presidents in the coming months. The City Council has also waded into the matter of substandard off-campus housing.

Last week, a council committee began investigating the relationship between Northeastern University and one of the city’s most complained-about landlords, Anwar N. Faisal.

In the past decade, Faisal and his companies have been defendants in at least 22 lawsuits and 11 criminal complaints in Boston Housing Court, according to court and city records. In the same period, he has received 469 code enforcement tickets totaling $51,720 for violations outside his buildings, including overloaded dumpsters, but paid only $3,010 in fines. He has also been the subject of 16 complaints by tenants filed with the state attorney general’s office since 2008.

But Northeastern, which housed only 47 percent of its undergraduates on campus last fall, has paid Faisal millions in the past decade to house its students in a dozen buildings he owns just steps from the campus in Fenway. At the same time, many other Northeastern students who rent directly from Faisal in the same buildings have complained about squalid conditions.

Last Tuesday, John Tobin, a former Boston councilor who now serves as Northeastern’s vice president of city and community affairs, told the committee that Inspectional Services has never cited any of the apartments leased by the school from Faisal for code violations. The school, he explained, oversees the units and makes sure they are up to code.

But a check of Inspectional Services records showed that in 2008, the department did cite an apartment leased by Northeastern from Faisal on Hemenway Street because the unit had rodents and a broken door lock. The problems were fixed within a few weeks.

Michael Armini, senior vice president for external affairs at Northeastern, said the school had no comment because it is investigating its relationship with Faisal in response to the Globe series.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@
globe.com.

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