New Rules Limit Roommates, Push Rent Up For Some in Boston

In an unusual move, the Boston Zoning Commission set a limit this week on the amount of college students who can live together in off-campus apartments–and its effect on both the college and multifamily housing community is being questioned.

Just four students per apartment will be allowed. Clearly, the the college kids are upset; less students per apartment will translate into higher rents for them. But they aren’t the only ones concerned about the ruling, according to the Boston Globe. Other worried parties include:

  • Property owners. "If you reduce my five-bedroom to four, I’ll just raise the rent to
    what I would have gotten," Greg Hummel, a Brighton property owner, told the Globe.
    "And if students can’t afford it, do you think the Starbucks crowd will pay any less?" (Which is fair, because the ruling is going affect 5,000 units in Boston.)
  • Area real estate lawyers (at least one). "This is a back-door form of rent control," said Stephen Greenbaum,
    a real estate and land use lawyer who spoke
    against the proposal at the hearing. "You can’t simply single
    out a particular group and say they can’t live together. This will not
    only not stand up to a legal test, but is also patently unfair."

Both are valid points. So who wants the change? Mostly residents and their representatives, who claim students packed into high-rent apartments have raised housing costs in the Boston area too high for many working- and middle-class families.

But that doesn’t mean college students’ housing needs aren’t relevant. No one needs to go on record to point out how expensive higher education in general is. But living somewhere while getting it is expensive, too.

Take Northeastern University in Boston. The article says the residential area around the school has become flooded with students; according to the College Board, just under half of all undergraduates live in college housing–so that seems likely.

Why? Well, living on-campus at Northeastern isn’t cheap. In Fall
2007, room and board cost $11,420
a year, the College Board said. That would be about $1,100 a month for
food and lodging for the school year. Area rents in Boston for
four-bedroom apartments can be found for less than $3,000 a month,
according to the Globe–giving four roommates a monthly rent of $750.

Unless they eat $350 worth of food a month, that’s a considerable savings–and would be more of a savings if the students added a roommate or two.

Are we right to deny students cost-of-living savings? Certainly not for one of the other reasons for the limit given in the article–that college students have loud parties and disrupt the neighborhood. That notion hopefully didn’t in any way influence the decision, because it’s a little silly: Four students living together in an apartment can throw just as loud a party as five students in the same apartment can.

Is it possible a more realistic limit would have been effective? Yes, 12 students are too many for a five-bedroom apartment; but six, with two or more students sharing a bedroom, isn’t. (That’s how dorms–their other housing option–are structured, after all.)

Or maybe the student housing quandary is really just part of a larger one: Boston rental housing is just too darn expensive. According to, Boston’s cost of living is 240 percent of the
national average, and apartments are 48 percent more expensive than the
national average.

That’s tough for anyone–students or families–to be able to afford without downsizing space or increasing the amount of residents in a unit. And who’s to say one group should have the right to make adjustments, and the other shouldn’t?