LANDLORDS: BEWARE OF RENTING PROPERTY THAT COULD BE CONSTRUED AS A LODGING HOUSE

Published on: November 14, 2011

Say the words “lodging house” or “rooming house” and most of us think of substandard transient housing filled with scofflaws and vagrants.  However, according to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, whenever a group of four or more unrelated people live together in an apartment, the landlord is operating an illegal lodging house in violation of state law.  This is regardless of the number of bedrooms in the apartment or the size of the dwelling.

General Laws c. 140, § 22 defines a lodging house as “a house where lodgings are let to four or more persons not within the second degree of kindred to the person conducting” such a facility. Some cities, including Worcester and Boston, have enacted even more restrictive lodging house statutes.  For example, Boston recently passed an ordinance which prohibits more than four undergraduate students from residing together.  These statutes are designed to address concerns with overcrowding, deplorable health and sanitary conditions as well as fire hazards prevalent in lodging houses.  See, Maher v. Brookline, 339 Mass. 209, 215 (1959); Newbury Jr. College v. Brookline, 19 Mass. App. Ct. 197, 203-204 (1985).

In City of Worcester v. College Hill Properties, LLC, the City of Worcester began a crack down on landlords that were leasing their apartments to groups of undergraduate students.  Specifically, they looked at properties that leased apartments to four or more students.  While each of these properties were large enough to accommodate these students under the state sanitary code, and were in pristine condition, the City claimed that they were lodging houses and were therefore prohibited.  The Housing Court judge agreed and ordered the landlords to cease renting there units to these people.  The Court also held them in contempt when they failed to remove the tenants.  The Appeals Court affirmed the trial court’s decision and reiterated its prior position that a landlord who leases to four or more unrelated adults is in violation of the state’s lodging house statute.   While the landlord argued that the four students were living together, sharing expenses, and sharing the facilities, and were therefore a “single housekeeping unit”, the Court rejected the argument. 

As a result, landlords should be cautious not to violate the lodging house statute when renting to multiple people within a single dwelling.  If the apartment is being leased to four or more unrelated people, you are operating a rooming house.  Even if the apartment has four separate bedrooms, the lodging house statute would prohibit leasing the apartment to four unrelated adults unless the property is zoned and licensed as a lodging house.  Likewise, while most cities and towns do not expend significant resources enforcing this law, they tend to raise it when an issue arises regarding the behavior of the residents (i.e. loud parties, fights, etc.).  In such cases, the landlord not only is exposed to actions by the municipality, but is also subject to claims of the residents who the landlord is not compelled to remove. 

For a copy of the decision click here.

 

If you would like further information please contact Lori Atkins at latkins@meeb.com or 781-843-5000 (102).