Could a dorm shortage be forcing students into unsafe apartments?

City officials go after code-violating landlords using multiple colleges' information

Boston housing officials have identified 580 potentially overcrowded student apartments in the city and plan to inspect each address for safety violations.

A Boston Globe "Globe Spotlight" report last spring highlighted poor living conditions, safety hazards, and overcrowding in the city's college neighborhoods. These included broken windows, broken smoke detectors, and rodents.

A 2008 zoning rule mandates no more than four full-time undergraduate students may live in one apartment. Boston officials say they will investigate whether the flagged properties are in violation of that ordinance and other living standards—such as lacking exits.

The city collected approximately 25,000 student addresses from 31 colleges and narrowed down 580 locations that seem to house more than four full-time undergraduates.

"For the first time, we have the data," says William Christopher, an architect who has been running the city's Inspectional Services Department since last May.

City officials collected most addresses from students at Boston College, Boston University (BU), Harvard University, Northeastern University—and expects to receive more from University of Massachusetts-Boston in weeks.

This new data, however, is not flawless. Officials say they do not have an address for every student, and of those they did collect, many lack unit numbers—making it difficult to determine whether individuals in those apartment buildings are actually violating the code.

The city will only evict student tenants as a last resort, says Christopher. "It is a cooperative approach."

Renter safety

In 2013, a BU student died when she could not escape her illegal attic apartment during a fire. A year before that, another student on the same street nearly died in a fire.

Following the death, activists began calling on universities to release student housing data to aid the city in detecting hazardous rental units. Initially, only BU agreed to do so—other schools were wary of releasing such information due to federal student data privacy laws. But the Boston Globe series prompted the mayor to persuade more schools to comply.

The city began requiring landlords to register their properties in 2013, and officials say they plan to use the student data to identify missing addresses. Eventually, they hope to inspect the city's approximately 150,000 rental units to ensure housing code compliance.

Many Boston area schools do not have enough on-campus dorms to house all enrolled students, and limited city housing availability has pushed landlords and tenants to squeeze as many residents as possible into older buildings.

According to the Boston Globe, off-campus living by undergraduates and graduates jumped 36% from 2006 to 2013. Often, students ignore the occupancy rule just to afford rent. And because they have limited options in the city's housing market, landlords lack motivation to maintain the units.

Boston officials also say they upgraded their computer systems to track complaints and landlords more thoroughly. They add that they are working with problematic landlords to improve maintenance and safety of their residences (Wallack, Boston Globe, 1/2).

 


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