On March 13, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino signed off on an amendment to the city zoning code, making it illegal for more than four full-time undergraduate students to rent an apartment together.
The amendment, unanimously approved by the City Council in December and approved by the Zoning Commission March 12, immediately went into effect. With the flick of a pen, pre-existing living arrangements across the city were made illegal.
The position landlords were put in because of the undergraduate renter cap is part of the reason four Boston landlords and a Boston College student are challenging the zoning amendment in state Land Court, said attorney Stephen Greenbaum.
Landlords Mark Rosenberg, Lazarus Pavlidis, Anthony Dimeo and Lloyd Rosenthal and BC sophomore Jessica Luccio filed a complaint against the city of Boston and the city Zoning Commission April 8, Greenbaum said.
City Councilor Michael Ross spearheaded the City Council proposal to limit undergraduate housing at the end of last year, picking up the support of neighborhood groups railing against apparent student overcrowding and misbehavior. Ross said high-occupancy apartments drive up rents in neighborhoods near college campuses and students are often taken advantage of by greedy, absentee landlords who pack co-eds into converted spaces “like sardines.”
BC junior Ben Resil said his six-bedroom apartment, owned by Anthony Dimeo, one of the landlords challenging the city of Boston and the Zoning Commission, comfortably houses the six students now living there.
“It’s definitely sufficient. It’s less crowded than the dorms by far,” Resil said. He and his roommates split the $5,200 monthly rent, and he said the rate is less per month than living on campus.
For students who cannot live at BC, which does not guarantee on-campus student housing, a 12-month lease is a downside to off-campus renting, and rates depend on individual situations, Resil said.
Greenbaum said the landlords and BC student taking on the city argue the undergraduate rule should be annulled because it violates rights of equal protection under the law, privacy and free association. The rule is effectively a form of unlawful rent control, is “impermissibly vague” and is “arbitrary and capricious and not rationally related to any legitimate governmental purpose,” the complaint states.
In addition, Greenbaum said property owners cannot keep track of renters’ student status and to do so is “just about impossible” with students often fluctuating between full- and part-time status. Inquiring into a student’s status can also violate the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act if students do not wish to make education information available, he said.
All leases involving more than four undergraduates, whether approved before or after the rule, are now illegal. By choosing to restrict undergraduate occupancy through the zoning definition of “family,” rather than by building use rules, the City Council set up the amendment so that previously existing leases would not be grandfathered into the new system, Greenbaum said.
Landlords have called the amendment a form of “backdoor rent control,” and Greenbaum said landlords have built successful and legal practices around student housing patterns.
“It’s also just fundamentally unfair. A number of the property owners that are affected by this had built a business model,” he said.
Reuben Kantor, chief of staff for Ross, said the BC student taking on the zoning amendment is “probably being taken advantage of by these landlords.”
Greenbaum said Luccio, the BC student, had signed a lease to live in an apartment with more than four undergraduates for the next academic year.
Kantor said Ross and the Council expected a challenge from landlords when they proposed the amendment.
“They’re throwing everything they can think of against the wall and hoping something sticks,” he said.
The city has 20 days to respond to the filed complaint, Greenbaum said, adding it had not as of yesterday.
Kantor said enforcement of the undergraduate resident cap is up to the Inspectional Services Department.
“We certainly won’t be violating any federal laws,” he said.
Still, Boston University College of Arts and Sciences senior Jack McGillicudy, who lives in a Pratt Street apartment owned by Rosenberg and leased to six undergraduates, said he could be uncomfortable with the city’s policy, though he will not be living in his apartment much longer.
“I don’t want them prying around,” he said.