Can you start a rooming
house in Boston?
Rules as clear as mud

We went to the desk in Boston’s Inspectional Services Department where, we were told, the question of starting a rooming house could be answered. We explained that we had, hypothetically, a three-family house that we wanted to convert to a rooming house. We asked two veteran employees: Where in the city are rooming houses permitted and where are they prohibited?

The question could not be answered. They asked us: Where is the house located? We said our question is hypothetical, but if we wanted to buy a three-family in a neighborhood where rooming houses are permitted, can you tell us where that would be. The question could not be answered.

Okay. Let’s try a different question: We’ve got a typical, older, three-family house, there’s no problem with zoning, can you tell us what we need to do to it physically to make it legal as a rooming house?

Answer: Get your architect to submit your plans and show us everything you plan to do.

Question: But what are the requirements?

Answer: Get your architect to submit your plans. Then we will tell you.

ISD public relations aide Julie Fothergill claims there have been applications for new rooming houses. We asked another employee. In the past year, reviewing 2,500 applications, he had not seen one for a rooming house. We think it’s obvious why.

At least another 119 rooms are currently going off line in the Boston area: four different addresses along Beacon Street, 30 rooms in Back Bay, eight rooms in Newton, all in desirable locations, all going to condos or luxury townhouses. Meanwhile, Boston’s ISD has investigated 50 rooming houses and shut down 30 over the past year, part of a "no-campaign-against-rooming-houses" campaign. New rooming houses are not coming on line, even in less affluent neighborhoods. The problem is not economics, since rooming houses in poor neighborhoods easily turn a profit. The problem: owners cannot evict problem tenants, and the housing slides into disrepute.