A 2008 amendment to the Boston zoning code prohibits landlords from renting an apartment or single housing unit to more than four undergraduate students. But short of the signs requiring people to shower before entering a swimming pool, it would be tough to find a rule that has been so widely flouted.
This is serious business, however. A Globe Spotlight series in May exposed the netherworld of undergraduates who cram into poorly maintained apartments. It’s a domain defined by broken locks, inflated rents, rodents, and firetrap attics similar to the one where Binland Lee, a Boston University senior, perished last year in an Allston blaze. And with less than two months remaining before the in-migration of Boston’s college students, competition for these infernal spaces is heating up.
Boston Mayor Martin Walsh has vowed to enforce the no-more-than-four undergraduates rule. He has convinced universities to share the addresses of their off-campus students with city inspectors. That effort to identify overcrowded apartments should gain traction this fall. But if the Walsh administration expects to get ahead of the problem, it should start now. Landlords in Allston, Brighton, Mission Hill, and other student-rich neighborhoods are currently listing properties with five or more bedrooms. Local real estate agents, in turn, are showing the units to five or more undergraduate students. The city needs to attack the problem at its source.
Attorney Joanne D’Alcomo has seen the overcrowding problems caused by undergraduates living in her Brighton neighborhood. A litigator by trade, she is offering a summer action plan — pro bono — to the Walsh administration. The initial step would require city officials to compile a list of rental agencies that advertise units with more than four bedrooms. Next city officials would inform real estate agents of their responsibility to disclose the prohibition on renting to more than four undergraduates. A nice touch might be an official letter warning agents that failure to disclose is a deceptive act and exposes them to liability under the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act. And knowing that rental agents and landlords can be a recalcitrant bunch, D’Alcomo would also encourage the attorney general’s office to seek a preliminary injunction against offending real estate companies and landlords.
With such measures in place, landlords might think twice before cramming students into apartments and pushing rents through the roof. Families might find respite from the noise and chaotic conditions that often characterize crowded student areas. And most importantly, a tragedy like the one that took the life of Binland Lee might be avoided.
A review of Zillow, the real estate section of Boston.com, and similar rental listings shows dozens of dwellings with five or more bedrooms for rent. Some barely attempt to disguise their pitches to undergrads. One recent listing by Bean Town Realty Management, for example, described a three-unit, 15-bedroom property at 1789 Commonwealth Ave. in Brighton that is close to Boston College and “is often rented as an entire building.” The combined monthly rent for the three units adds up to $11,400. Typical five- and six-bedroom dwellings in Allston-Brighton draw rents in the $4,500-$6,000 range.
“It’s not the quality of the buildings that is driving up rents,” said D’Alcomo. “It’s greed and the landlord’s ability to ignore the law because of City Hall’s previous inaction and apparent indifference.”
Visits to a half dozen real estate offices in Brighton this week yielded few opportunities to discuss the undergraduate overcrowding issue. Jason Schuster, the head of Proper Realty Group, was the only agent to share some information on his rental practices. He said his agency adopts a policy of “full disclosure” when dealing with large groups of undergraduates. Many of Schuster’s counterparts up and down Commonwealth Avenue could best be described as uncommunicative.
Some universities exacerbate the problem by listing rental units with five or more bedrooms on their internal lists of off-campus housing. But that, too, may be changing. On Thursday, Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn said that BC’s goal is to remove any listing with five or more bedrooms from the private lists. Greater efforts are also underway on local campuses to educate undergraduates about the no-more-than-four rule.
“No one can claim ignorance of this law,” said BU spokesman Colin Riley.
Winking at landlords, real estate agents, and students who flout housing laws has been part of Boston’s college scene for a long time. Finally, city and college officials are taking a harder look.