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SJC: No Licenses Allowed For Landlords To Rent To College Students

Remember when you lived in a rundown, dirty and dingy apartment or house in college with as many friends as you could cram into the place? Recently, such practices have been scrutinized by cities throughout Massachusetts. Recognizing the dangers inherent in these types of dwellings occupied by college students, the city of Worcester tried to regulate this rental industry by classifying these dwellings rented to four or more college students as lodging houses pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws c. 140 §§ 22-32. Categorizing these dwellings as lodging houses provided the city with more control over the industry as the city then had the ability to license and regulate the operation. The landlords objected to the city's actions and litigation ensued. The Supreme Judicial Court in City of Worcester v. College Hill Properties, LLC, et. al. recently decided the issue.

The facts of the five separate civil actions consolidated for appeal were identical. Defendant landlords owned two‑family and three‑family rental properties in the city of Worcester. The properties contained dwelling units, consisting of a living room and dining room, a kitchen, a bathroom, and an unspecified number of bedrooms. Each dwelling unit at issue was leased to four local college students for a twelve‑month period. The students, all adults, were not related to each other. The students sharing an apartment each had access to the entire apartment and the use of all common areas, such as the kitchen and living room.

Following an investigation, the city issued citations to the landlords, ordering them to cease and desist from operating unlicensed lodging houses. When the landlords did not comply with the city's orders to reduce the number of occupants to no more than three unrelated adults in any one apartment, the city filed complaints in the Housing Court, seeking preliminary injunctions enjoining the landlords from failing to comply with the city's administrative orders, and from operating unlicensed lodging houses. After evidentiary hearings, the Housing Court issued temporary injunctions, which the landlords did not comply with. When the landlords did not comply with the temporary injunctions by reducing the number of occupants in each apartment, the city filed complaints for civil contempt. The landlords were found in contempt and civil fines were imposed. The landlords appealed and the Appeals Court affirmed the findings of contempt. The SJC, then granted the landlords application for further appellate review.

The SJC recognized that this case would be decided entirely on the meaning of the word "lodgings" under the lodging house act. The city of Worcester argued that the dwelling units in question fit into the plain meanings of the words. In arriving at this interpretation, the city relied primarily on the dictionary definitions of the words. The SJC held that the city "construes a house in which lodgings are let to mean any place to live in any house." The Defendants contended that these definitions rendered by the city fly "in the face of common understanding of the words as well as of an 'apartment' within an 'apartment building'" and by adopting the city's interpretation would "lead to absurd results and selective enforcement never envisioned nor intended by the Legislature."

Weighing both arguments and considering the public policy argument that more regulation of these types of dwellings was appropriate, the SJC disagreed with the city and ruled:

While we recognize that the city seeks to protect student safety, and apparently regards the apartments at issue here as being the equivalent of dormitories, such concerns are better addressed through enforcement of applicable zoning ordinances and provisions of the sanitary and fire safety codes. The lodging house act, however, has no application in these circumstances. The apartments as occupied are not "lodgings" so as to render the defendants' properties lodging houses under G. L. c. 140, § 22, and the judgments enjoining the defendants from allowing four unrelated adults to occupy each of the apartments cannot stand.

This opinion by the SJC means that dwellings rented to college students are not lodging houses and that landlords do not have to be specifically licensed as operators by the city. These landlords must continue to abide by the applicable zoning ordinances and provisions of the sanitary and fire safety codes, but cities do not have the ability to control these properties through the licensing process. College students throughout Massachusetts can continue to enjoy their best years crammed into off campus apartments and landlords will continue to profit free from the licensing process.

If you are a landlord or a tenant and have questions regarding leases, premises liability or sanitary or building code violations contact Attorney Mucci, an experienced real estate/landlord-tenant attorney.

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