Columns, Opinion

SZAFRANSKI: Big Brother comes to Boston

Peace and quiet and access to housing are considered essential to modern living in America. In Boston, however, many longtime residents of Allston, Brighton, Mission Hill, Jamaica Plain and other neighborhoods have found it increasingly difficult to achieve these rights as student gentrification – or ‘studentification’ – expands beyond campuses.

The city has attempted to mitigate this by passing a housing ordinance that prohibits any lease listing more than four unrelated undergraduate students to a single unit. Behind this were hopes that students would be discouraged from moving off-campus and that landlords would be less likely to carve up existing apartments to squeeze in more students and glean more cash. Were this successful, it would mean more housing for residents and therefore, lower prices. Less neighboring students would also mean less parties and more peace and quiet.

The law, however, which can only be enforced against landlords for enacting leases exceeding the limit, has been largely ignored. Meanwhile, the city has considered demanding that schools enforce the edict themselves. Schools would be charged with examining their student information too many students with the same address and reporting it to the city.

The relationship between students and residents has been tenuous, especially as students encroach deeper and deeper into neighborhoods. Students on campus or off can be a nuisance, especially when stumbling around drunk and competing with residents for spaces of their own. The city has tried insisting that schools build more dorms, but the advantages notwithstanding, for some students, including those of limited means, off-campus living is cheaper and lacks the on-campus oversight. All the while, the city is faced with the difficult fact that it gains immensely from the employment, economic impact and, yes, some taxes generated by students.

However, the attempt to turn the schools themselves into little more than the city’s pawns is the beginning of an unfortunate slippery slope. It could be only a matter of time before the city turns its enforcement against students, and it is terrible to think of universities being made into accomplices as the city takes on the role of Big Brother.

Such extreme measures tend to arrive when a population cannot shoulder the weight of its ideals or politicians fail to determine the lesser of two evils. In Boston’s case, the failure of the new ordinance has led officials to consider an invasive approach. On a state level, Gov. Deval Patrick is mulling over a constitutionally dangerous means to assess an absurd ‘per mile fee’ using electronic inspection stickers.

At the end of ‘The Dark Knight,’ Lucius Fox asks ‘at what cost’ will Batman find the Joker. Indeed, he must ‘burn the forest down.’ Even today, we must remain vigilant and not permit our liberties to suffer for temporary security, convenience or political expediency.

By itself, better student behavior off campus may not protect civil liberties. It will, however, give us credibility when we tell city officials and residents that efforts to control our behavior may inadvertently threaten the quality of our free society.

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