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Landlords challenge undergrad zoning law


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.


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  1. As one of the members of the depmolveent team who is requesting the zone change I feel it is very important for all sides to have the correct information as it pertains to our requested zone change, as opposed to misleading, incorrect information circulated to scare people into opposition. So, here are the facts: The zone change, if approved, would grant us the ability to increase the current rentable space from 9,400 s/f to 19,859 s/f, an increase of 10,459 s/f or 1.11 times bigger (not 4 times as reported above and presented in flyers from Save Westport Now). That 19,859 could either be in one building with a foot print of no more than 10,000 s/f or two separate buildings (5,000 s/f footprint) and of the total 19,859 s/f, 75% would have to be for residential uses. Second, the zone change would allow us to achieve a height of no more than 3 stories and 35 feet, not 6-7 (or 8) stories as reported above. Keep in mind that the existing YMCA’s Weeks pavilion is 58 in height off of church lane and Patagonia is 52 in height. Never have we considered or presented a building of 8 stories on Church Lane and the 6 story concept we presented in our pre-application hearing had only 2/3 stories visible from grade on Church Lane and 4 from grade on Elm Street. As for the preservation of the Victorian, we would be more than happy if anyone in town would like to move the house place it wherever they feel it would best serve them. For our depmolveent site, the benefits of the combined properties as outlined below far outweigh the concept of preserving the building for the sake of preservation. 35 Elm Street and the adjacent single story doctors office which sits on the same site are out of place with their abutting neighbors . 36 Elm Street (designs within reach) is in the RORD zone is built far beyond today‚Äôs current BCD standards and the existing Weeks Pavilion of the YMCA, which is clearly an architectural gem, is over 58 feet in height and has a wall of concrete running the lenght of 35 Elm Street. Our future proposed depmolveent will complement the historic Bedford Mansion and Fire House (a property which was owned by the Y at the time we became involved) as well as the buildings housing Patagonia, Urban Outfitters and the soon to be new Gray Goose restaurant. They will be constructed using real material, sustainable designs and in a scale far better then what exists today.The benefits of our request would allow for the construction of additional downtown housing, a use which is currently prohibited in the on this RORD site (because it does not have frontage on a designated Arterial Street); additional retail and restaurant space running at street level down Church Lane and rounding the corner up Elm Street towards Main; new pedestrian connections and public courtyards, wider, tree lined sidewalks on Church Lane and most importantly the creation of over 100 concealed (underground) parking spaces which would exit across from the entrance/exit of Christ and Holy Trinity Church (which as a result will provide safer, easier vehicular management and reduce the traffic on Church Lane. Also keep in mind the the majority of the traffic issues on Church Lane are a direct result of the use of the YMCA.As for what will happen next, that, like everything in our town, will require additional public meetings and approvals. Nothing would nor has ever been done behind closed doors or without the public being able to voice its opinion. I, along with other members of our depmolveent team, have proven ourselves as it pertains to historical redepmolveent. This is eveident in the newly restored 101-107 Post Road East (Urban Outfitters and the old Sherwood Mansion) as well as 87 Post Road East (Old Westport Bank and Trust). We understand and are sensitive to the environment we build in. Our preservation of the Bedford Mansion and Fire House will be to the highest standard and our proposed addition will meld beautifully and complement its surrounding neighborhood. Our depmolveent will add hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue to the town and create jobs, evening activity and life where it currently does not exist (but belongs).If you want to oppose our depmolveent, at least get your facts straight. If you can do that, we may be able to have intelligent conversations about depmolveent, smart growth and the overall success of our Downtown.