Published on: June 27, 2013

Recently, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) had an occasion to review the case law and policies concerning the interpretation of the Massachusetts lodging house law.  In the matter of City of Worcester v. College Hill Properties, SJC 11166 (May 15, 2013), the SJC considered a case involving two-family and three-family rental properties in the City of Worcester owned by the Defendants.  The properties contained units consisting of a living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom and unspecified number of bedrooms and eat unit in the case was leased to four un-related college students for one-year terms.  The City of Worcester issued citations to the owners of College Hill Properties ordering them to cease and desist from operation unlicensed lodging houses.  When the Defendants failed to reduce the number of occupants in each unit the City filed complaints in the Housing Court seeking injunctive relief to enjoin the Defendants to comply with the City’s administrative orders and from operating unlicensed lodging houses.  The City cited fire safety and overcrowding concerns as a basis for bringing the enforcement actions.

The Housing Court judge issued the preliminary injunctions in the five separate cases filed concluding that the units as occupied constituted lodgings under the Lodging House Law.  The Defendants failed to comply with the court orders and the City of Worcester filed Complaints for Contempt.  The judge found the Defendants in contempt and issued monetary fines against each Defendant.  The five cases were consolidated and appealed.  The Appeals Court affirmed the housing court judge the SJC granted Defendant’s application for further appellate review.

In reviewing the case on appeal, the SJC focused on the meaning of the term “lodgings” under the lodging house act.  See M.G.L.c. 140, §[1].  The Court focused on the phrase lodgings as the Act defines a “lodging house” but does not define lodgings anywhere within the Act.  This ambiguity opened the door for the Court to look to external sources for a “definition” of lodgings where the statute was not clear and unambiguous.  The SJC distinguishes a tenant from a lodger stating that a tenant has a property interest whereas a lodger merely has a contractual interest in agreeing “to live in and occupy a room or other designated portion therein that still remains in the owner’s legal possession.” The SJC found that the units as occupied in the five cases were not lodgings and as such found the lodging house act has no applicability to the units and therefore no license is required.  The Court recognized the City’s interest in protecting safety but ruled that “such concerns are better addressed through enforcement of applicable zoning ordinances and provisions of the sanitary and fire safety codes.” The Court vacated the judgments enjoining the Defendants from allowing four unrelated adults to occupy the units and the judgments for contempt.

In short, the SJC’s decision removes the burden from the landlord in obtaining a license for units occupied by more than four unrelated individuals and leaves the issue of safety to the applicable zoning ordinances and provisions of the sanitary and fire safety codes.

For a copy of the decision please [click here].

[1] Section 22. “Lodging house”, as used in sections twenty-two to thirty-one, inclusive, shall mean a house where lodgings are let to four or more persons not within second degree of kindred to the person conducting it, and shall include fraternity houses and dormitories of educational institutions, but shall not include dormitories of charitable or philanthropic institutions or convalescent or nursing homes licensed under section seventy-one of chapter one hundred and eleven or rest homes so licensed, or group residences licensed or regulated by agencies of the commonwealth.