The fire on April 26, 2013 at 87 Linden Street in Allston, the second serious fire in less than two years on the same block, is a tragic reminder of what can happen with overcrowded, substandard student housing.
The Fire Marshall will now investigate the cause of the Allston fire. In addition, The Boston Inspectional Services Division should examine whether the unit was overcrowded in violation of the Boston Zoning Ordinance, and whether housing codes and accessibility codes were violated. Enforcement of city ordinances is,
unfortunately, inconsistent, and usually after the fact. Knowing this,
landlords and realty companies frequently violate these ordinances in the name of profits. The victims are often unsuspecting college students. As a result,
students, who pay high rents, are subjected to increased risks from their overcrowded housing.
The law in Massachusetts governs how homes must be safely maintained in order to prevent personal injury to occupants of the property. In Boston, zoning ordinances require building owners to declare whether their properties are single-family or multi-family units. In either case, under Boston’s zoning ordinances, under the definition of “family,” no unit may be occupied by more than four unrelated students unless the building meets much stricter building requirements.
It is also generally illegal for a landlord to create bedrooms in basements, and it may be against code to create a bedroom in an attic. No matter how it is configured, every house or apartment must have working smoke detectors throughout the unit.
Once a unit exceeds the four unrelated-occupant threshold, it technically becomes a rooming house, which makes it subject to very strict fire-prevention regulations under M.G.L. c. 148, Sec. 26I and other regulations. For example, a rooming house must have walls and ceilings made from fire-rated materials to slow flames in the event of a fire. Smoke detectors must be in every bedroom,
and must be interconnected. Even more important, every boarding house must have a working sprinkler system. Boarding houses must also meet accessibility guideline and provide multiple means of egress for upper floors, which may include fire escapes.
Real estate brokers and leasing agents share responsibility for student overcrowding and exposure to risk from substandard housing. A quick look at any leasing agent’s website will reveal scores of units available for student occupancy which are intended to house more than four unrelated individuals. Leasing agents collect a single month’s rent, sometimes more, for their services. Since they also take the responsibility to collect signatures on leases, they know exactly how many students will be in the unit. Leasing agents simply cannot claim ignorance of the laws regarding overcrowding.
Who May Be Liable
It is our firm’s opinion that violations of the boarding house rules are evidence of negligence and may create liability for the responsible landlord.
We also believe that knowing and willful violations of the boarding house rules by real estate companies or leasing agents may subject them to liability as well. Violations of these standards may also be violations of the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act, which may subject landlords and their leasing agents to multiple damages and attorneys’ fees.
Injuries and death from substandard housing may also lead to criminal charges against landlords. For example, in January 2012, two absentee landlords were convicted of manslaughter after a fire in an illegal apartment in Quincy led to the deaths of three tenants. The landlords were accused of wantonly violating building and fire codes.
The question of the enforceability of rooming house regulations is also pending at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. In that case, civil claims were brought against a Worcester landlord for violation of the Worcester zoning bylaw. In that city, no more than four unrelated persons can occupy a home. The city brought the violation because there were more than four students in the unit. The decision in that case is expected to be handed down in the next few weeks.
Update: The City of Boston later cited the owner of the two-family structure, Anna Belokurova, for running an illegal rooming house and not obtaining the permits needed to create bedrooms in the basement, according to The Boston Globe. Read more.
Woman killed, firefighters and occupants injured in raging Allston fire, Boston Herald.
One dead, 15 injured in Allston house fire, The Boston Globe.
Jury finds landlords guilty of involuntary manslaughter in Quincy apartment fire, The Patriot Ledger.