Somerville to consider University Accountability Ordinance

The City of Somerville is considering an ordinance that could adversely impact students living off campus. Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily

On Sept. 30, the City of Somerville’s Legislative Matters Committee will consider an ordinance to increase regulation of off-campus housing occupied by Tufts students. The ordinance, proposed by Board of Aldermen President Bill White, would require the university to submit a list of off-campus addresses occupied by students and the number of students living in each housing unit to the city of Somerville. It would not, however, require the disclosure of students’ names.

According to White, the proposed ordinance is similar to one passed by the City of Boston in August. Boston’s ordinance followed an extensive Boston Globe investigation which revealed that many landlords violated city ordinances by allowing too many students to live in certain rental units. This resulted in dangerous conditions, and in one instance, the death of a Boston University student in a fire in April 2013.

White submitted the proposal during the Board’s Aug. 28 meeting, and it was then referred to the Legislative Matters Committee. In explaining the measure, he emphasized that it would help to reduce overcrowding and would assist in enforcing an existing city ordinance that sets a four-person limit on the number of unrelated adults sharing a housing unit.

“We get [the list from the university], you refer it to Inspectional Services, [and] they get an inspector down there, so it really is a way … to cut down on a practice that is affecting a lot of folks, especially with Tufts students surrounding them,” White said at the Aug. 28 meeting. “We have to be vigilant because it has a number of effects … quality of life, overcrowding, noise, parties, etc.”

The ordinance could adversely impact a number of Tufts students who currently occupy five- and six-person rental units in Somerville. Although the city currently does not possess enough information to identify each unit that contains an illegal number of residents, two Tufts students were recently evicted from their home after an inspector discovered that the unit contained six residents. The students’ names have been withheld due to privacy concerns.

According to Director of the Office of Residential Life and Learning Yolanda King, the university has placed the impacted students in on-campus housing.

Tufts Community Union (TCU) President Robert Joseph said he is concerned that if the ordinance goes into effect and numerous students are evicted, the university will not be able to place them in on-campus housing.

Joseph cited the on-campus housing situation from March 2013m when the university could not house all the juniors who had requested housing due to the number of seniors who had selected to live on campus for the following school year. Ultimately, many of these students were forced to make housing arrangements later than others who had initially chosen to live off-campus, resulting in fewer options.

“We are already having trouble finding housing for all of the juniors and seniors who cannot get housing on campus, and the City of Somerville is contemplating an ordinance that would make that more difficult,” he said.

Joseph said he hopes to work with the university and has a meeting scheduled with University President Anthony Monaco to discuss the university’s options.

“I’m going to go to … see what the university can legally do to rebut the possibility of the accountability ordinance,” he said. “I’m not sure the university can comply with it in its current form, I’m not sure the university can comply with it this year and I’m not sure what would be done to house all the excess students.”

Joseph also refuted White’s concerns about the noise caused by students living among other families and city residents.

“I think they think fewer people in an apartment will give them fewer noise complaints, but in reality the overcrowding problems they perceive to exist in Somerville are most mostly fictional,” Joseph said. “Fewer students living together would not reduce the number of noise violations or reduce the problems with the community.”

In addition to neighborhood disturbances caused by students, White also explained that many of the properties are owned by absentee landlords and that the extra occupancy of units has resulted in inflated property values.

“A lot of absentee landlords are buying property in the Tufts area for rental purposes, [and] they’re paying a higher value for those because they figure if they can rent to five or six students on each floor, it’s going to be a cash machine,” he said. “They pay a higher amount, and then that brings up the property values in the surrounding area, and then when folks get hit with their tax bill the next year, their taxes have gone up because their values have gone up.”

Joseph expressed concern that the ordinance is beating around the bush and not solving the city’s actual problem.

“The City of Somerville has an issue, and they are indirectly trying to do what they want to do by making the lives of the students and the university’s experience more difficult,” he said.

White said that rather than see its students evicted, the university should inform those choosing to live off-campus of the city’s zoning ordinances.

“My hope would be that Tufts would alert its students to the Somerville zoning limitation well in advance of when students actually make their housing arrangements, before they arrive on campus,” he said. “The housing information provided to newly accepted incoming Tufts freshmen would seem to be an ideal time to provide this notice.”

According to Director of Public Relations Kim Thurler, the university is actively working to ensure students receive the necessary information.

“This week, the Sophomore Class Council, with involvement of Residential Life and Community Relations, hosted a well-attended meeting on how to find housing for next year,” she told the Daily in an email. “On Parents Weekend, there will be an Off-Campus Housing Fair that will provide information about resources and services available for living off campus. Other sessions for rising juniors and seniors will be held during the semester.”

Although Thurler did not state the university’s views on the ordinance, she said that Tufts will “determine an appropriate response” as it learns more about the measure.

Joseph, meanwhile, said he looks forward to working with the administration as they analyze potential solutions and housing alternatives. A major part of his campaign platform, housing is one of Joseph’s primary concerns, and he said he discussed it with Vice President for Operations Linda Snyder and Provost and Senior Vice President David Harris this summer.

Joseph said that he was invited this week to participate in an Undergraduate Population and Housing Working Group which will be comprised of various members of the Tufts community. He expects the committee to produce a report at either the end of this semester or the beginning of next semester.

Harris said that the university was still considering its options in dealing with the new ordinance.

“We have taken some steps to launch a task force, but are reconsidering the timing of this effort in light of the many other initiatives that are underway,” Harris told the Daily in an email.

Alderman at Large Mary Jo Rossetti told the Daily in an email that the Board of Alderman’s Legislative Matters Committee will discuss the matter further at its Sept. 30 meeting, where, according to the meeting’s preliminary agenda, the committee will recommend proposing an amendment to the full Board.