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.
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