A New Housing Law for Brighton


So it’s official. Yesterday, the number of college kids who can cram themselves into one apartment was limited to four by the Boston Zoning Commission. The idea is that when there are fewer college students stuffed into one apartment there will also be fewer raucous parties and late-night noise. It is also hoped that this new limit will level off the playing field for families looking to rent a two-family or single-family house in neighborhoods such as Allston-Brighton and Mission Hill. There aren’t many families, after all, who can afford to fork over the $4,000-a-month rent (or more) that a landlord can easily rake in from a group of college students rooming together. Interestingly, within the provisions of this new law, larger groups can live together — as long as they are not college students.

Will this new ban have much of an effect in Allston-Brighton? I have my doubts. For one thing, it doesn’t take more than one or two college students to throw a rowdy party. The new law also seems like a tough one to enforce, given that the city’s Inspectional Services Department will have to rely on complaints from fed-up neighbors. Third, it’s hard to believe a law can single out only one group, and limit their rights in such a way.

On the other hand, I can sympathize with the law’s intent. Any adult who has ever lived next door to a group of wily college students knows that it’s a trying experience. And it’s sad to watch neighborhoods of families and children dwindle down to transient, poorly-maintained neighborhoods filled with dilapidated rooming houses.  Students have argued that they need to party after a week of academic straining (poor things),  and that loud, obnoxious behavior is “wholly typical” of college-aged students. I find such arguments hardly worth a response. For one thing, not all college students are loud and obnoxious, so letting a few run wild is an injustice to better-behaved students who get stamped with the “obnoxious student” label. Plus, a lot of hard-working folks— long out of college— have also been toiling away at their jobs all week long and need a little peace and quiet by the time the weekend arrives. 

So we’ll wait and watch to see if this new law cuts down on wild parties. We’ll also keep a close eye on this law’s effect on prices for single-family and two-family homes or large condos . If landlords can no longer rent out large houses  for $5,600 a month in rent, will they decide to sell? And if no other investors are lined up to buy, will they have to sell to normal families who can only afford a reasonably-priced house? Will housing prices drop in Allston-Brighton? Will rents go back up again? Will neighborhoods revive to encompass a wider demographic range of residents? For now, all we can do is wait and see. 

  • http://www.TerritoryRE.com The Buyer’s Broker

    Can you say sink like a stone? My thoughts… http://www.territoryre.com/wordpress/?p=273

  • Pam

    Hmm… that’s an interesting take. Not sure yet if I would go quite that far. I really think in the end this law is going to be a law that is so difficult to enforce that it will in fact change very little. A house that used to house five will probably still continue doing that… illegally. And landlords will continue to charge high rents and pretend not to know what their tenants are doing. In the long run, maybe the law will support housing values by freeing up a ramshackle student hovel for a young family who wants to fix it up, stay in the neighborhood, and add long-term value to the property.

  • http://www.territoryre.com/wordpress The Buyer’s Broker

    Good point. if they can’t/don’t enforce the law than obviously it won’t have much of an effect on anything.

  • M.

    If the students took the necessary steps to rein in the troublemakers in their midst, there wouldn’t be the need for such a law.

  • http://boston.redfin.com/blog/author/cosmo.catalano cosmo.catalano

    There’s so much wrong with this law, it’s hard to get it out in one comment.

    1) It’s might be good to ask if this law would have passed if it specified “immigrants” or “non-US citizens” instead of “undergraduates”. It’s a far less trivial distinction, at least in terms of legal status.

    2) What qualifies someone as “living” at a location? College students frequently retain their parents’ address for voter registration, driver’s licence, etc., and use their school mailbox as a mailing address. It’s tough to argue sleeping in a spare bedroom for a semester counts as “residing”.

    3) Student populations are no small part of Allston-Brighton’s recent return to desirability. Loud parties are going to be part of this gentrification process until the neighborhood becomes too expensive for students to afford.

    4) On a related note, student housing is largely subsidized by parents, who can (generally speaking) afford to pay whatever the market demands. Since the price-per-resident of a 4-bedroom apt is generally higher than a 6-bed, this measure may end up raising rents, preventing the supposed influx of families from being able to afford the place.

    5) If I were an Allston landlord with a substandard 6 bedroom house, rather than selling it (especially in this market), or trying to fix it up for families, I’d do a quickie conversion into two substandard three-bedroom apartments. I could still rent it to 6 students, just for hundreds of dollars more per month.

    6) I’m skeptical that anyone who passed this law has ever been to Mission Hill. No family is going to walk through there and think “hey, this is a great place to raise a family now that the students are gone.” The undergrads forced out of there will be replaced by worse.

  • Pam

    Hi Cosmo!

    Your points are well-taken. I, myself, wonder about the legality of a law singling out such a narrow group of people. I also agree with point 3, that to some extent, college students add vibrancy to neighborhoods like Allston-Brighton and Mission Hill. But there does seem to be a tipping point. Limiting one house to four students instead of 12 may not necessarily change the general neighborhood dynamics and will certainly make life more pleasant for that house’s immediate neighbors.

    On point 5, landlords may decide to convert their units over to multi-family housing, but they’ll need permits to do so, and that gives the city some control in regulating what’s going on. There may be fewer landlords willing to take the time and expense for such a conversion than we might imagine.

    On point 6, Mission Hill has really improved in recent years. I was in the neighborhood the other day, marveling at whitewashed buildings that used to be covered in graffiti, and all the new businesses in the business district. I can see a huge appeal for this neighborhood for urbanites who want to stay close to their jobs in the Longwood Medical Area and have access to public transportation. If there are fewer students, I don’t think the neighborhood will fall apart. I think it will more or less follow the trajectory of Jamaica Plain or the South End, where professionals who are not ready for the suburbs move in, fix things up and continue the gentrification process. In fact, there are so many factors at work in this point, that it’s hard to make any predictions. With gas prices being what they are, I think places like Mission Hill and Allston-Brighton could be poised for a huge revival as people abandon the distant suburbs. It’s just too conveniently located to sink into oblivion — with or without students.