Massachusetts Lodging House Act Held Inapplicable to Off-Campus College Apartments

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Massachusetts Lodging House Act Held Inapplicable to Off-Campus College Apartments: City of Worcester v. College Hill Properties, LLC, 465 Mass. 134 (2013).

In PD&P’s Winter 2012 Newsletter, we reported on a recent decision in which the Massachusetts Appeals Court upheld sanctions issued against the operators of five unlicensed lodging houses located near the College of the Holy Cross. In May 2013, the Supreme Judicial Court, upon further appellate review, reversed the Appeals Court in a decision that will effectively prevent college cities and towns throughout Massachusetts from using the Lodging House Act, G.L. c. 140, §§ 22-32 (“the Act”), as a means of ensuring the safety of undergraduate students residing in off-campus apartments. The Act was initially passed during World War I, when thousands of residents lived in overcrowded lodging houses, many of them in the neighborhoods of Boston. The Act was intended to address public safety concerns, as many lodging houses were known to be unsanitary and disease-ridden, as well as public welfare concerns, as lodging houses were equally notorious as venues for “sexually loose” or otherwise “immoral” conduct. The Act defines a “lodging house” 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. It requires a lodging house keeper to obtain an operating license, which, in turn, requires the keeper, among other things, to comply with a substantial number of monitoring and reporting requirements, and to install a sprinkler system in the premises (a modern proviso to the Act).

Today, many young adults journey to Massachusetts cities and towns to attend the over one hundred public and private colleges and universities located within the Commonwealth. Rather than reside in dormitories or lodging houses, college students frequently rent off-campus apartments or houses. But, due to limited availability and high rents, students are often compelled to share such apartments or houses with others – sometimes several others. As a result, many units located in close proximity to institutions of higher learning wind up housing more students than they were designed or zoned for, and often contain inadequate fire safety utilities or insufficient fire egresses for the number of occupants. Indeed, in recent years, several newsworthy fires in the Allston-Brighton neighborhoods of Boston have engulfed homes where seven or more college students resided. As the result of such tragic fires, several college students were injured in an attempt to flee the building, or died when trapped inside.

Faced with a similar situation, and seeking a means to ensure the safety of students residing in off-campus apartments, the City of Worcester issued citations to landlords who rented such apartments to college students, ordering them to cease and desist from operating unlicensed lodging houses in violation of the Act. When the landlords failed to comply with the City’s orders to reduce the number of occupants in each apartment to no more than three unrelated adults, the City filed complaints in the Housing Court, seeking preliminary injunctions to enjoin the defendants from further noncompliance. Concluding that the apartments as occupied constituted “lodgings” under the Act, a Housing Court judge issued the injunctions. However, the resident students – college seniors who were then preparing for final exams – refused to vacate in response to notices to quit. As such, after show cause hearings, the judge found the defendants in contempt and issued monetary fines. The defendants appealed. But the Appeals Court affirmed the judgment of the Housing Court below, finding that the policies generally advanced by the Act – i.e., to prevent the overcrowding of persons in an unsuitable space – were applicable to off-campus student housing. College roommates, reasoned the Appeals Court, are more akin to “lodgers” than they are to a “family unit.” City of Worcester v. College Hill Properties, LLC, 80 Mass. App. Ct. 757, 761 (2011)

However, when the landlords reached the SJC on further appellate review in 2013, the SJC rejected the Appeals Court’s reasoning and held that apartments shared by four or more unrelated adults (typically, college students) are not “lodging houses” within the meaning of the Act. In so ruling, the SJC observed that “lodgers” occupy only a specific room within a lodging house, and have a contractual interest only in that room, whereas tenants have the right to occupy and use the entire leased premises. The right is not merely contractual, it is a protected property interest. Additionally, the SJC noted that both the Massachusetts Sanitary and Fire Safety Codes effectively distinguish between “lodgings” and “apartments,” in that they separately define the terms “rooming unit” and “dwelling unit,” and impose distinct standards for each. See, e.g., 105 C.M.R. §§ 410.00, 410.150 & 410.550. This regulatory scheme, the SJC concluded, evinces a legislative understanding that a rooming unit is not the same as a dwelling unit; therefore, “lodgings” within the meaning of the Act are not the same as apartments.

Following College Hill, cities and towns seeking to protect the safety of college students and other apartment-dwellers can no longer use the Lodging House Act as a means of doing so. Instead, concerns regarding over-crowding and fire-preparedness must be addressed through the enforcement of applicable zoning ordinances, and fire safety, sanitation, and building codes. The City of Boston, for example, recently amended its Zoning Code so that “a group of five or more persons who are enrolled as full-time, undergraduate students at a post-secondary educational institution” no longer qualify as a single “housekeeping unit” that may occupy a single dwelling. Nonetheless, the SJC’s decision has left some in government and higher education to call upon the Legislature to amend the Act to encompass off-campus apartments, so as to avoid the need for inconsistent, piecemeal regulation and enforcement at the municipal level.

Published in Developments in Municipal Law Fall 2013 Newsletter.