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Overcrowding a safety hazard in Boston’s off-campus housing


A 2013 interpretation of a Massachusetts statute may be having a negative effect on the level of safety precautions landlords are taking before renting to low-income people in the greater Boston area. One population that seems to be particularly affected are college students living in off-campus housing.

The Massachusetts Lodging House Statute requires that all lodging houses must have the proper licenses and be subject to safety inspections. Lodging houses must also put in place fire-prevention strategies like hard-wired manual pull stations and sprinklers to comply with regulations. Under the statute, if a landlord did not take the necessary safety precautions, he or she could be held liable for any injuries or deaths that occurred as a result.

Last year, however, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court claimed that the term “lodging house” should be reserved for places were a tenant leases a room in a house and would not apply to such situations as a group of students renting a house or apartment and living together. The unfortunate result of that interpretation was that it left the door open for landlords to be more lax in taking safety precautions against fires and other hazards. Additionally, it increased the chance that a landlord may choose to rent to more people than is safe in a single dwelling.

Boston’s zoning codes provide some help, making provisions that landlords renting to five or more tenants must meet building and fire codes. A city ordinance also requires that private rentals be registered with the city and subject to inspections. Enforcement, however, is almost impossible, and the results can be disastrous.

One fire forced two Boston University students living in off-campus housing to jump from windows on the second and third floors of an allegedly over-crowded building to escape. Just a year later, a building across the street also had a fire, and a female student died after being trapped in her room. According to reports, neither or the buildings had the proper fire prevention and notification systems and lacked proper escape routes.

In cases where a landlord does not comply with zoning codes or city ordinances and a person is injured or killed as the result of the landlord’s negligence, the victims or surviving family members may be able to file a premises liability suit. These types of claims may also be filed in cases where an incident stems from faulty security, inadequate lighting or other hazardous conditions.

Source: Wicked Local Cambridge, “GUEST COMMENTARY: Dangerous housing conditions threaten student safety” Douglas K. Sheff, Jun. 12, 2014


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