A city zoning rule that bans more than four undergraduates in an apartment isn't working, city officials said today, so they've begun looking at changes that would let them start levying fines on landlords who persist in overcrowding their units.
The problem, ISD Commissioner William Christopher said at a City Council hearing, is that zoning regulations carry no financial penalties - and inspectors can be turned away at the door. His department is looking at moving the rule into the city sanitary code - which does allow for fines, and lets ISD go into court for a subpoena or search warrant for units whose occupants or landlords try to turn away inspectors.
Christopher said that since the current ban on more than four undergrads went into effect in 2008, inspectors have only cited two properties for violations.
Christopher emphasized his goal is not to start levying fines left and right - and not to get students kicked out of apartments - but to simply ensure students have safe and sanitary living conditions. Unfortunately, he said, the only way to get some landlords to fix a problem is "is to affect their finances."
That's fine, city councilors Mark Ciommo (Allston/Brighton) and Josh Zakim (Mission Hill, Fenway) said. But even if the apartments are safe, they can still have significant impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods - such as noise, trash and public-safety issues - they said. "A lot of landlords are taking advantage of every nook and cranny in a house" to put in beds, Ciommo said.
They noted that the state sanitary code, which calls for a minimum of 150 square feet for the first residents and 100 for each additional resident, could still mean a triple decker filled with lots of students.
Former City Councilor Mike Ross, who came up with the zoning rule, said the goal was not necessarily to un-cram apartments, but to ensure that real-estate speculators didn't simply buy up entire neighborhoods to convert them into students housing. Despite the lack of enforcement, he said, the measure has had some success; he said one Mission Hill landlord is converting all his student apartments to professional and family housing. He pointed to increased on-campus dormitories as well as hundreds of new units being built along South Huntington Avenue that have restrictions on student renters.
Christopher said that while local colleges have worked to get the city addresses of buildings that house students, students in those units don't have to let inspectors in and they don't have to identify themselves as students. He said some landlords now tell students to refuse to let inspectors in.
"The city has never, ever evicted a student under this ordinance," he said. "We would never do that."
He said that for this current academic year, ISD identified 589 potential problem buildings in neighborhoods such as Allston, Brighton and Mission Hill. Of those, inspectors could only gain entry to 10%, he said.