Boston Cracks Down On Unsafe Off-Campus Housing Conditions

Freelance Writer

Jan   2015



Rodent infestations, malfunctioning smoke alarms, doors that won’t lock. These details aren’t mentioned in the student housing brochures of Boston colleges and universities, but they’re the unfortunate reality for many of the estimated 33,000 students who live off campus.

An in-depth report by The Boston Globe last year called attention to the subpar living conditions of thousands of students. The “Spotlight” series was prompted by the death of a Boston University senior, Binland Lee, who died in an April 2013 fire. Lee was living in an illegal attic bedroom of an overcrowded Allston apartment. Now, the city is putting their findings into action and coming down on unsafe student living situations—or at least they’re trying to.

Boston zoning law prohibits more than four undergraduate students living in any one apartment. While the “No More Than Four” law was approved in 2008, critics say it has not been enforced. In a survey of 266 students conducted as part of The Globe report, 21% said they lived with more than three other students. 

“This has got to be the most widely ignored law in Boston,” Globe reporter Thomas Farragher told WBUR last May. “Nobody’s paying attention to it. The city’s not enforcing it. The landlords are exploiting their young tenants, and the tenants are taking advantage of it because they save money by cramming more kids into these units.”

Following The Globe’s investigation, the city collected more than 25,000 addresses of students from 31 colleges. Several schools initially refused, citing privacy concerns, but eventually were compelled to release the information. It’s not a flawless catalogue, however. Officials say many addresses did not include unit numbers or were actually students’ parents’ addresses.

But from the working list, officials have identified approximately 580 properties that may have five or more undergraduate students. Over the next few months, inspectors will check each location for violations.

Officials say they will work with students, landlords, and universities to find alternative housing for students living in unsafe or overcrowded units. They insist students they will only be evicted as a last resort.

“We are not about hurting students here,” says William Christopher, the commissioner of Boston’s Inspectional Services Department, in a Globe article. “It is a cooperative approach.”

But among other factors, high on-campus housing costs will likely continue to tempt students to ignore “No More Than Four.” According to The Globe “Spotlight” report, median on-campus housing costs for Boston area schools climbed 59% from 2000–2012. That’s nearly double the inflation rate. recently published estimates of the cheapest available on-campus housing at Boston’s largest schools. (Some estimates are particularly high because they include meal plans, which schools may require.)

Northeastern University: $720 per month

Emmanuel College: $1,385 per month

Simmons College: $1,717 per month

Boston College: $1,734.50 per month

Boston University: $1,753.75 per month

Emerson College: $1,762 per month

Suffolk University: $1,891.25 per month

A shortage of on-campus housing further compounds the problem. For example, one of Boston’s largest schools, Northeastern University, only guarantees housing to students for their freshman year. And although Northeastern and other colleges and universities have been building new dorms, increasing acceptance rates are far outpacing available housing. The shortfall reflects a national trend.

Thus, Boston real estate agents continue to market five-bedroom or more apartments to student populations, who agree to disobey the law in order to afford high rents. In fact, about two-thirds of the students in the “Spotlight” survey said they oppose the four undergraduates to an apartment limit. Meanwhile, landlords continue to turn a blind eye to the violations.

Boston College sophomore Andrew Babbitt is one example of an undergraduate who previously lived in an overcrowded apartment. He cited finances as the main reason he and his five former roommates disregarded the law.

“We ignored the four to a house rule simply because housing would have been too expensive had we obeyed it,” Babbitt told BC’s student newspaper, The Heights, in September. “Also, our landlord was comfortable having up to six guys in the house, so there was no reason to abide by the policy.”

For better or worse, the upcoming safety inspections now provide a solid reason. 

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About Emily Lemiska

Emily Lemiska is a writer and communications professional from Boston.