Leasing of Apartments to College Students Held in Violation of Lodging House Statute

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Leasing of Apartments to College Students Held in Violation of Lodging House Statute: City of Worcester v. College Hill Properties, LLC, 80 Mass. App. Ct. 757 (2011)

The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently upheld permanent injunctions and civil contempt fines issued against the operators of five unlicensed lodging houses located within one block of the College of the Holy Cross. In 1990, Worcester adopted G.L. c. 148, § 26H, requiring lodging houses to be equipped with sprinkler systems. Despite the fact that their multi-unit properties were not so equipped, the defendants leased several units in each property to four or more unrelated college students. After defendants defied cease and desist orders issued by the city Department of Inspectional Services, Worcester applied for relief to the Worcester Housing Court which, in turn, issued preliminary injunctions ordering defendants to reduce the number of unrelated adult occupants in each dwelling unit to no more than three. Permanent injunctions and civil contempt fines – ranging from $1,500 to $7,300 per unit – followed defendants’ failure to comply with the Housing Court order.

On appeal, defendants argued that their properties did not qualify as “lodging houses” within the meaning of the Massachusetts lodging house licensing statute. G.L. c. 140, §§ 22­ 32. Under the statute, a “lodging house” is defined as “a house where lodgings are let to four or more persons not within second degree of kindred to the person conducting it.” G.L. c. 140, § 22. Thus, enforcement of the statutory licensing provisions requires proof of four elements – the property must be (1) a building or structure; (2) where housing accommodations are leased or let; (3) to four or more adults; (4) unrelated to the operator. Here, defendants insisted the city failed to meet its burden of proof because each dwelling unit was occupied by four or more students “living as a family unit,” not as lodgers. The students, defendants claimed, were “tenants whose living arrangements formed a single housekeeping unit, akin to a family within the meaning of a local zoning ordinance.”

The Appeals Court refused to follow this path, largely for fear of where it might lead. Declining to accept guidance from zoning law when interpreting a licensing provision, the Appeals Court did not view the issue as a particularly close one. “Though the line between a lodging house, single housekeeping unit, and group home may not always be easy to discern . . ., we have no doubt that four or more unrelated adults, sharing housing while attending college, is not an arrangement that lends itself to the formation of a stable and durable household.” The Housing Court’s decision that the licensing statute applied to defendants’ properties, ruled the Appeals Court, was consistent with the purpose of the statute – i.e., “to assure such facilities are safe, sanitary, habitable, and orderly.” Moreover, the decision below was supported by substantial evidence and unmarred by legal error. Accordingly, the final judgments and orders of contempt were affirmed.

With over one hundred public and private colleges and universities in Massachusetts, local property owners are often tempted to rent their units and apartments to resident students. Still, they cannot do so in defiance of local ordinances or statutory protections. And, certainly, absent a mandate from the Legislature, any attempts by property owners to circumvent the long-standing lodging house licensing system will not be tolerated by the Courts.

Published in Developments in Municipal Law Winter 2012 Newsletter.