Image by Kent Buckley
In the winter of my junior year of college, I found myself having to interview dozens of potential tenants vying to occupy one of the four other bedrooms in my duplex. After spending a year living with roommates whose lifestyle choices differed from mine, to say the least, I put a lot of work into making sure that didn’t happen again. Of the seven people who ultimately lived in that apartment, a few of us sharing spacious bedrooms, five of us were undergrads. It was the best living situation I encountered during my college years, and technically it was against the law.
Boston’s “no more than four” rule was introduced to the zoning code in 2008 as a way to address overcrowding in student housing. As a city, we’ve seen how serious this issue can be, and the 2013 death of a Boston University student—who was one of more than a dozen people living in a house on Linden Street in Allston—is often cited in this conversation. But while that house was inarguably overcrowded, with almost every living area reportedly converted into sleeping space, it was not the number of people living there that led to fire and fatalities. The house lacked the appropriate number of exits; the fire detection system was not up to code. In short: the place was a hazard because the landlord fashioned it that way.
City officials want to give the “no more than four” ordinance more teeth because the Boston Inspectional Services Department currently finds it difficult to enforce. (There was not a single citation issued under this rule during the most recent September 1 turnover.) But focusing on overcrowding in this arguably discriminatory fashion hurts students who can hardly afford rent to begin with. When the seven of us packed into that five bedroom house, just a toss away from Linden Street, we built a happy and healthy community that defied most common assumptions about student housing. The rent was lower, yes, but more importantly, we came together under cooperative living arrangements, with each of us contributing to the house as a whole by rotating chores and cooking shared meals.
If Boston is serious about addressing the student housing crisis, then leaders need to get creative. Slapping the wrists of scofflaw landlords on the myriad violations that put tenants at risk is like playing rental whackamole. Facilitating cooperative networks that help build safe and healthy communities, on the other hand, can help students learn their rights, would foster better relationships between this subsection of tenants and the city, and could provide a better incentive for landlords to keep their units up to code. At the very least, officials should look not at the number of students in any given unit, but rather at how many rooms, closets, and basement corners in a house have been converted into bedrooms.
There is no top-down solution for this crisis. We, as a city, are all in this together, and until Boston finds a more radical student housing fix, more fines, ordinances, and worse will stem from this enduring plague of extremely shady business.
Free Radical is a biweekly column syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Emily Hopkins is BINJ projects coordinator.
Copyright 2015 Emily Hopkins. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.