Somerville passes ordinance, mandates list of off-campus students

The Board of Aldermen of the City of Somerville recently voted unanimously to pass the Ordinance Regulating University Accountability. The ordinance requires Tufts to supply Somerville with a list of addresses of students living off campus each semester, as well as the number of students at each address and the graduating year of each student.

The ordinance will go into effect on Sept. 1, according to Alderman at Large Mary Jo Rossetti. Names will not be included on the list.

This ordinance was passed to enforce a previously existing zoning ordinance, which states that no more than four unrelated adults may share an apartment, according to Rossetti.

The new ordinance came about after Boston passed a similar ordinance regarding university accountability in ensuring the safety of students living within city limits, Rossetti said.

“Residents in mostly the West Somerville area throughout the years have had some disturbances that really irritated them, worrying first and foremost about the health and safety of the students, knowing that some landlords were [renting] apartments to students beyond what our city’s ordinance stated,” she said.

Tufts Community Union (TCU) President Robert Joseph said that while the Board claims this ordinance is geared toward student safety, the ordinance could lead to student evictions.

“I think that this ordinance was done with safety in the title but more so constricting students in the intent,” Joseph said. “I think neighborhood grievances definitely played a role, and I think complaints from neighbors definitely encouraged and enabled the Board of Aldermen to push this ordinance forward.”

According to Barbara Rubel, director of community relations, the city is concerned with safety hazards that may result from a violation of the four-person zoning ordinance, but that quality of life concerns from Somerville residents cannot be ignored as motivation for the new ordinance.

“While it remains to be seen if reducing the number of students in any single apartment will make a neighborhood quieter, ensure that there aren’t too many cars on the street, are fewer disruptive parties, etc., neighbors are entitled to expect peace and quiet around their homes,” Rubel told the Daily in an email. “I’m not convinced that fewer people mean fewer disturbances, but we will see.”

Joseph agreed that the ordinance would not effectively reduce noise complaints.

“I think that it doesn’t matter whether there are three or four or five students living in an apartment; if they’re going to be noisy they’re going to be noisy, if they’re going to be quiet … they have ways to be quiet,” he said. “You can live in a completely legal apartment and still get a noise complaint — it happens all the time. I don’t think that cutting down one or two people from an apartment is really going to reduce the noise or the garbage that neighbors are worried about.”

The first step of the process, according to Joseph, is for Tufts to collect addresses from students. Students will enter their address into SIS, and this information will be compiled into a directory, which the university will give to the city, he said.

From there, the city will consult the list to see if more than four unrelated adults are living in an apartment, Rossetti said.  She said that if it is discovered that the zoning ordinance is being violated, the city will contact the offending landlord, and it will be up to the landlord and the students to make changes.

She added that neighbors also had the right to report any uncertainty about possible ordinance violations.

“Well of course citizens of the community, if they are suspicious, I’m sure they would call the city and bring to the attention that they have a concern and that would be investigated,” she said.

Tyler McCullough, a sophomore who will be living off campus next semester, said he was concerned about the ordinance and possible violations of privacy that could result from it.

“Say I was in a house with more than four people in it — that would definitely make me nervous,” he said. “You know you’d have to be much more concerned about your privacy and much more suspicious of your neighbors. I think that’s another thing that’s not going to help university/community relationships — I think it’s just going to lead to more suspicion and more harsh feelings.”

Joseph said that a number of students have raised concerns to him regarding privacy and the dangers associated with having a directory of every student’s address.

“If there’s a directory of where students live off campus, it’s essentially a map for anyone who wants to rob a few homes, so I was very concerned about that,” he said. “I raised that in the Legislative Matters Committee. It was essentially shaken off, and the ordinance was pushed through committee anyway.”

Joseph said he would have preferred a solution that emphasized students’ respect for their neighbors through community engagement. He said he believes that if students simply meet their neighbors and have conversations with them, students will be less likely to be careless toward them.

According to Rubel, if students and landlords start to abide by the legal occupancy, and if there are many apartments housing more than four students, then more apartments will be needed to house students.

“I believe the apartments are there, but not all are going to be within a block of the campus,” Rubel told the Daily in an email. “Students may have to look a bit farther away but may also be surprised with what they find — sometimes better places to live.”

Joseph believes that this ordinance will make already limited housing more scarce by taking more rooms out of circulation.

“Those rooms are there — in most cases those rooms are safe,” he said. “I would rather see the City of Somerville adopt a zoning ordinance that is smart in respect to safety in houses, that isn’t based on an arbitrary number — four — and that is based on real health and safety standards.”

McCullough said that the ordinance made housing more expensive for him because now rent may only be split four ways instead of five, as landlords are still expecting the same total income.

“It priced me out of a lot of places that previously I probably would’ve been able to afford had there been five people … and now it’s made me live farther away from campus,” he said. “And honestly if Somerville is worried about noise complaints and students kind of overstepping into the community, having students live farther and farther away is not going to help their cause.”

According to Rossetti, the university has to be more accountable for providing housing to students.

“They have land that they could supply … and perhaps that’s an area that Tufts is looking at,” she said. “They have grown in the number of students they’ve accepted over the years without increasing the amount of housing they supply.”

While Joseph wants to continue to cooperate with Somerville, he is hesitant about the new ordinance and how the city will use it against students who do not live on campus.

“I think there are opportunities for us to work with the City of Somerville, but we’re kind of holding our breath to see what happens with this ordinance, and hopefully it won’t be used antagonistically in a way that’s just used to kick students out,” he said. “That’s my concern.”


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