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editorial

Student apartments expose ravages of housing shortage

For generations of college students in Boston, crowding into a run-down apartment has been a rite of passage, a lesson in sacrificing immediate comforts for education’s sake. Yet as rental prices spiral, and as the financial pressures on students grow, there’s a greater incentive than ever to save money by squeezing in a little tighter, into dodgier spaces, and hoping for the best.

The physical risks that today’s students assume in off-campus apartments can be hair-raising. As the Globe Spotlight Team detailed last week, some students endure bedbugs, rodents, and other hazards. Other units have unlockable doors that invite burglary or worse. In one ghastly case, Boston University student Binland Lee and her friends squeezed into an Allston apartment building to save money. Fatefully, her attic bedroom violated local codes. Lee was killed when a fire tore through the building.

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Such an event is a disgrace in a city that owes its economic vigor to its status as the nation’s higher-ed capital. The current situation represents a moral failure by certain Boston landlords, who rent substandard units to a captive market of inexperienced renters. It’s a bureaucratic failure by city government, which issues citations that the worst landlords feel free to ignore. And it’s an institutional failure by universities, which enroll more students than they can house on campus — and then avoid getting deeply involved in the mad scramble for off-campus real estate.

More than that, though, the off-campus housing crunch is the result of Boston’s overheated market, where geography and politics constrain the supply of new housing, especially student housing. Price-conscious renters have no leverage. Landlords who don’t have to compete for customers feel no market pressure to upgrade their properties. As housing units come up for sale, deep-pocketed landlords whose business models involve skimping on maintenance, and packing in tenants beyond what the law allows, can easily outbid individual families or more conscientious investors.

In the short term, there are some tools that the City of Boston and local institutions can use to protect students and give landlords greater incentives to keep up their units.

City inspectors routinely write tickets for violations of safety codes, but many of those tickets are never paid. Even if they are, the fees are minimal: In the last decade, the highest individual fine that the Globe found for Anwar Faisal, one of the city’s most complained-about landlords, was $335. Stiffer, escalating fines for glaring violations would increase the cost to landlords of neglecting maintenance — thereby deterring the most bottom-line investors from thinking they can keep operating apartments on the cheap. Neighbors, who often see students as a source of frustration, should do them a favor by showing up at court hearings on code violations — making it harder for landlords to get legitimate complaints dismissed. In extreme cases, criminal prosecutions of the most neglectful landlords would send a message that repeated hazard citations are a mandate to make repairs — not a minor cost of doing business.

Meanwhile, universities owe their students much more help in avoiding unsafe apartments. They can warn students and their parents, who are often footing the bill, about the hazards of illegal apartments, and urge them to use social media to spread the word about problem units. They should provide emergency housing for those who move into apartments that turn out to be uninhabitable. And in contracting for apartments, schools should avoid dealing with owners who operate substandard units until those landlords mend their ways.

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Schools can take one other easy step: giving the city the addresses of students living off-campus, so officials can more easily identify grievous violations of an oft-flouted ordinance limiting the number of undergraduates in a housing unit to four.

Meanwhile, the Walsh administration and local colleges should reach out to the local startup community — many of whose members have recent experience living in fleabag apartments — for help in automating the city’s apartment-inspection system, which relies heavily on traditional paperwork, and in making all the city’s data public. Meanwhile, an entrepreneur who developed a thorough, accurate apartment registry — akin to Yelp or TripAdvisor, which allow users to comment on businesses and allow business owners to respond — would be performing a profound public service.

No solution to the off-campus housing mess should presume city inspectors can be omniscient— or that a problem created by a housing shortage can be solved by writing more tickets. If every illegal apartment in Boston suddenly went off the market, and if every unit complied with the four-undergraduate limit, there might be thousands more students seeking places to live. So where will they go?

The most important way to protect students — and to prevent the emergence of run-down areas jam-packed with overcrowded student apartments — is to let the supply of housing catch up to the demand.

In concrete terms, that means getting permission to build dormitories shouldn’t be so difficult. In recent years neighbors have resisted dorm projects from Brighton to Beacon Hill, partly out of the perception that dorms turn into Animal House. That’s not true; dorms are far more orderly than unsupervised off-campus apartments. The city should consider less orthodox solutions, such as permitting private dormitories unaffiliated with any university. Universities, meanwhile, could help by building attractive but utilitarian dorms — not luxury facilities out of the reach of most students. As a matter of city policy, being more permissive in allowing housing construction of all sorts is the appropriate flip side of taking a much harder line in inspections.

Regardless, Boston should avoid taking steps that exacerbate its daunting housing shortage. One open question is how a new ordinance subjecting far more units to regular city inspections will affect the overall market. On the plus side, it will cast a wide net for code violations, and provide another basis of action against owners of substandard apartments. Yet as the Spotlight series indicates, city inspectors already know who the worst landlords are; existing penalties haven’t improved their behavior. A poorly calibrated inspection rule could add to the stiff costs that conscientious landlords face in Boston — without deterring the scofflaws who ignore every other city requirement. The new inspection ordinance is worth testing, but housing advocates should keep an eye on how it operates in the real world.

The ultimate goal shouldn’t be to make life harder for college students, most of whom are doing the best they can amid limited resources and information. It’s to promote an ample quantity of safe, well-maintained housing for a population that provides so much of Boston’s energy — and in whose hands the future of the city lies.

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