Other Issues

 

Boston City Council's student
occupancy limit is rent control

No more than four students per apartment 

Students will invade new neighborhoods
                 

Action Alert! below                               April 2008

            The Boston City Council wants no more than four students in an apartment. Without consulting landlords and with only 10 minutes of debate, the Council moved quickly last December to seal a behind-closed-doors deal with District 8 Councilor Michael Ross, voting unanimously to petition the Boston Zoning Commission to limit the number of college-level students that can occupy a Boston apartment to a maximum of four students.

The public hearing on the petition was December 11, 2007, and the unanimous Council vote was the very next day, December 12.

After a tumultuous hearing in which students and landlords clashed with neighborhood groups from student-occupied areas of the city, the Boston Zoning Commission dismissed the public and in a secret meeting voted unanimously in favor of the zoning amendment. The outcome had already been decided before the hearing.

The new student occupancy limit could have far-reaching impacts on the city and would give Boston’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD) one more powerful tool to invade multi-family properties and interfere with tenancies. Boston’s landlords can expect a crackdown on student occupancies.

 

Impacts on city

 

            The ostensible purpose of the Council’s action is to control student impacts on local neighborhoods, including loud, late-night parties, excessive, strewn-about trash, and high rents. But City Councilors appear not to have considered carefully the impact of reducing the number of students per apartment in this college- and university-intensive city.

‘Back door’ rent control and devaluation. By limiting the occupants per apartment, the effect will be to limit the rents collectible from apartments now typically occupied by students. Students can only afford so much rent for housing, so the occupancy cap is a rent cap – or rent control, without saying so! That limit on rents will reduce the assessed value of those properties and reduce the property tax revenue the city receives. To compensate for that revenue loss, the tax burden will shift to non-student-occupied properties throughout the city. And the parties will continue.

Displacement and high rents. By setting a maximum of four students, the basic effect will be to spread the extra students wider throughout the city. That will displace local families and households and bring premium rents to more units in more areas of the city. Coming along with the students as they spread out will be the same problems already complained of: loud, late-night parties, strewn-about trash, disorderly conduct and high rents, which will displace long-term residents. The City Council will have furthered institutional expansion of the colleges and universities without solving the problems. Student behavior will not change under this limit. The parties will continue.

Housing shortage and higher rents. The occupancy restriction will force students to occupy more housing, which will reduce the total available housing in the city, creating a housing shortage. Rents in general will rise, especially in areas adjacent to student-occupied areas as displaced families and other households also spread out. And the parties will continue.

College and university concerns. Reducing the number of occupants will increase the rents paid by individual students, even as the overall rent per unit declines. Students, parents, and the educational institutions will not be happy about that. And the parties will continue.

 

Real solutions

 

Enforcement – real enforcement – is the primary solution. There already are laws on the books that prohibit noise over certain levels both day and night, litter and improperly stored trash, and disorderly conduct. Enforcement of these laws needs to be ramped up substantially and targeted directly at students, including arrest of offenders. The colleges and universities all have student codes of conduct that cover off-campus behavior, with academic sanctions including expulsion. These need more enforcement also.

Finally, a surety bond could be required of off-campus students. It is a sum of money, say, $10,000, paid by all the students in one apartment, from which the cost of city enforcement is reimbursed after one or two warnings. With each roommate’s money at stake, this last approach, we are told, is very effective.

 

Roommates are legal

 

            The Council’s petition restricting student occupancies comes in response to a consent decree negotiated by Greater Boston Legal Services in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts in 2005, which specifically allows for roommate situations of any size in Boston so long as the property owner is not contracting individually with each roommate and so long as square footage requirements of the state sanitary code are met. Those requirements are 150 square feet for the first person and 100 square feet for each additional person.

            Until this consent decree, Boston’s ISD and the Boston Licensing Board were interpreting the state lodging house statute as prohibiting any occupancy with four or more persons unrelated to each other unless it is licensed and conforms to building code requirements for lodging houses. Enforcement of this interpretation was extremely lax and uneven.

Click here for Boston ISD Rooming House brochure

Legal problems

 

            The Council’s petition to the Boston Zoning Commission has some serious legal problems, including constitutional questions.

Students are being targeted as a separate group. Young professionals just out of school may have just as many parties as students and possibly more by some accounts.

Targeting students raises a question of equal protection of the law. Is it fair to target them, or is a legislative body like the City Council required to enact general laws applicable to broad categories of people? It might be legal to restrict all occupancies of unrelated persons, but not just students. (The consent degree mentioned above, however, would prohibit this option.)

            Then the question is: How are students to be identified? Does a public official have the right to approach a person and ask for their occupation or its equivalent? Being a student is not illegal. Such questioning might constitute unreasonable search and seizure or, in other words, invasion of privacy.

 


 

New rule:

Must guard tenant information

 

Written policy, careful procedures required

 

[March 2010]

Just when you thought things were getting tough enough with lead paint, along comes another complex, tyrannical requirement for landlords: keeping personal information on tenants – social security numbers, driver’s licenses, account numbers, etc. – carefully secured. The new rule applies only to personal information of Massachusetts residents.

The rule, identified as “201 CMR 17.00,” is already in effect as of March 1, 2010.  It’s now time to hustle and come into compliance.


Written policy

No matter how small a business you are, the new rule requires you to have a written – yes, written – policy on how you keep your tenants’ and all prospective tenants’ personal data records safe from identity theft or fraud. (See below.) Fortunately, the rules do say that the requirements can “take into account” the size of your business, the amount of resources available to you, the amount of stored data, and your need for “security and confidentiality” of personal information records. In other words, being a small business means fewer and easier requirements.

Probably the minimum that small landlords will have to invest in is a lockable file cabinet and a paper shredder. If you don’t have an office or secluded space away from the public areas of your home, you might also want to put the lockable file cabinet in a lockable closet. The idea is to protect against unauthorized people accessing the information you have – say, an electrician you have hired walking through your house without you being present, or a friend of your teenage son or daughter snooping around.


Lock & key

Most landlords deal with paper documents only – a rental application, for example, that contains the name of the applicant and various personal identity numbers (social security number, driver’s license number, account numbers, etc.). Paper documents will have to be kept under lock and key. Documents should not be left out on a desk. Unless they are being actively used, they should be locked in the file cabinet.

Handling prospective tenants’ personal data is also a problem. You can’t just destroy them in the paper shredder after you reject them. You need to keep their application forms under lock and key in case a refused tenant sues you for discrimination.


Electronic docs

If you have a computer with electronic documents containing personal data of your tenants or prospective tenants, those documents come under the new rules also.

Electronic documents are definitely more complex. They will require a firewall on the computer and must be password-protected. Files sent through the internet need to be encrypted. Deleted computer files must be made unrecoverable. Check out the rule for more details.

If you have an employee who works with personal information, the rules become even more complex and are beyond the scope of this article.

 


Personal Information Security Program

 

INSTRUCTIONS: Fill in the blanks on this page and save it permanently in a file. Or, alternatively, adapt it for your particular situation. The Small Property Owners Association (SPOA) gives you permission to photocopy this page to use or adapt as your written policy for protecting personal information of tenants and prospective tenants.

 

Written Policy of____________________________________

                                                                Your name(s)         

_____________________Date

 

1)     We will only collect personal information that is needed for our specific goals, namely, to check out a prospective tenant’s background information and credit references and to maintain a tenant’s contact information.

2)     Only people who need access to the information for official uses will have access to this personal information.

3)     We will review our rules for handling personal information at least annually or whenever a change in our business practices occurs.

4)     At the end of every work day, all documents containing personal information will be locked up.

5)     All personal information will be physically restricted from access by unauthorized persons by:

____________________________________________________(for example, keeping it in a locked file cabinet).

6)     Personal information documents will be kept only for as long as necessary and then shredded afterwards.

7)     If we know or have reason to know that personal information has been accessed by an unauthorized person, we will report this security breach, as required by law, to the attorney general, the state director of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, and to the person or persons whose personal information was breached. The report will include what happened, the number of persons whose personal information was breached, and what steps we have taken or plan to take regarding the breach.

 

DEFINITION: “Personal information” means a Massachusetts resident’s first name and last name or first initial and last name in combination with any one or more of the following data elements that relate to such resident: (a) Social Security number; (b) driver’s license number or state-issued identification card number; or (c) financial account number, or credit or debit card number, with or without any required security code, access code, personal identification number or password, that would permit access to a resident’s financial account; provided, however, that “Personal information” shall not include information that is lawfully obtained from publicly available information, or from federal, state or local government records lawfully made available to the general public.

DISCLAIMER: While SPOA tries as best we can in the above written policy statement to include all the requirements of the new personal information rule and what small property owners should do under it, SPOA cannot be legally responsible for the contents of this page. If in doubt, read the new rule – search on the internet for “201 CMR 17.00” – and/or consult with an attorney. This written policy is based on the “Small Business Guide for Formulating a Comprehensive Written Information Security Program” published by the Commonwealth’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation. A written policy that uses or follows this sample page would likely comply with the law if you are a small property owner without employees or electronic records. If you have employees or electronic records, consult this Guide online.

Here is the first paragraph of the law itself: “(1) Every person that owns or licenses personal information about a resident of the Commonwealth shall develop, implement, and maintain a comprehensive information security program that is written in one or more readily accessible parts and contains administrative, technical, and physical safeguards that are appropriate to (a) the size, scope and type of business of the person obligated to safeguard the personal information under such comprehensive information security program; (b) the amount of resources available to such person; (c) the amount of stored data; and (d) the need for security and confidentiality of both consumer and employee information.”