Medford City Council unanimously passed the University and College Accountability ordinance on Feb. 28, requiring Tufts to provide an anonymous list of the addresses of students living off campus in Medford.
The ordinance requires any university in Medford to send the city a list of student addresses on a semesterly basis. Very similar ordinances already exist in Somerville and Boston, according to Medford City Councillor John Falco.
City officials say that the list is a tool to protect students’ safety, especially as it relates to overcrowding. Code enforcers can use this list to ensure students are not violating Medford’s occupancy laws, Falco explained. According to City Clerk Edward Finn, city ordinances typically prohibit more than three unrelated people from sharing a property.
“I think this is a helpful tool to help code enforcement and provide safe apartments for Tufts students. This is not vindictive,” City Council Vice President Michael Marks said. “This is to provide safety for the students and to hold landlords accountable.”
While city code enforcers could go through the list to find violators, Code Enforcement Officer John Bavuso said this is not likely. Instead, the city will investigate properties suspected of overcrowding on a complaint-driven basis.
“All of our inspections related to housing are complaint-driven. We’re not going to take the list and go down and check every address that has more than three people in it,” Bavuso said, adding that complaints often come when neighbors notice too many cars parked in a driveway or an overly noisy party.
Marks noted that, with only two code enforcement officers, the city of Medford does not have the staff necessary to go through the list of student addresses and inspect every potential violator of the occupancy rule, which explains why enforcement would have to be complaint-driven.
However, knowing about potential violations and not enforcing all of them, as the city plans to do, may create a liability for the city, Marks noted.
“I thought about liability issues,” Marks said. “Aren’t we obligated to do something about [occupancy code violations]?”
According to Bavuso, if a code enforcer finds too many students living in an apartment, the landlord would be required to evict enough residents so that the number of occupants returns to “conforming levels.”
Bavuso said that when students violate occupancy laws, they put themselves in danger.
“It’s not uncommon for people to sleep in closets or crawl spaces,” Bavuso said, describing situations in which students try to squeeze too many people into a house. “If there’s an emergency, first responders aren’t going to look at the closet first. We want to make sure first responders can find them and get out [in a fire emergency].”
In particular, Bavuso referenced a 2003 fire which killed a Tufts student living in an apartment in Medford that only had one exit.
Yet, Marks acknowledged that there is no particular reason why three was the number of people designated as a safety risk, and that the occupancy law itself might be outdated.
“To say whether three, four, five people is safe, that may need to be looked at in the future,” Marks said.
Lauren Feltch, city council and community relations liaison in the mayor’s office, also did not provide a rationale for the occupancy rule when asked.
The College and University Accountability ordinance was first proposed in June of last year, but Marks said that such an ordinance has been in the works for three or four years after residents complained about Tufts students overcrowding apartments.
“Many residents had concerns about the number of people living in an apartment,” he said. “The neighbors got together and said we need some relief.”
The ordinance went through several meetings of the Subcommittee on Licensing after its original introduction, according to a Sept. 8, 2016 Daily article. Marks said residents seem content with the final outcome.
“They were very satisfied that it was another tool in enforcement. They were very pleased to see this move forward,” he said.
Rocco DiRico, co-director of the Office of Community Relations, said that Tufts plans on fully complying with the ordinance and that the university respects the city’s intentions in passing the measure.
“Tufts University enjoys a great working relationship with the City of Medford,” DiRico wrote in an email to the Daily. “We will continue to work with the city on a variety of issues that impact our students living off campus.”
DiRico added that, while Tufts will provide all off-campus addresses being used by its students, the names of student residents will not be provided to the city.
In fall 2014, Makoto Yamamoto (LA ’15) was evicted from his off-campus house in Medford, where he was living with five friends in an apartment that he said was limited to five unrelated residents.
Yamamoto told the Daily that his landlord asked one of them to leave after he received a notice that the apartment would be inspected by the city. However, after Yamamoto moved out, the inspector never actually showed up.
After his eviction, Yamamoto, who is currently in his second year as a graduate student at Tufts’ Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, was provided housing by the Office of Residential Life and Learning (ResLife) in a room in Carmichael Hall. He said that while the process of finding a new place to live only took about a week, it was stressful and he was worried about being without housing for a period of time.
“Nobody goes into a house expecting to be evicted,” he said.
Yamamoto added, however, that he was grateful to ResLife for relocating him quickly.
He also said that the high cost of rent in Medford was a factor in their decision to live with six people, as they could split the rent and make off-campus living more affordable.
“When we decided to move into the house, affordability was definitely a concern,” he said, adding that the cost of rent increased for each of his housemates after his eviction.
Yamamoto believes that the blame for his situation lies at least in part with his landlord, who, according to Yamamoto, never told him or his housemates about the five-person legal limit on their apartment until they received the inspector’s notice.
“Part of me wants to blame that maybe Tufts or the landlord should’ve told us something like that before we actually moved in, so we could think about our options,” he said. “We thought we were all on the same page, that there’s going to be six of us, that we were dividing the rent six ways.”
Bavuso said that, while he is unsure where the blame lies for the frequent breach of resident limits on Medford apartments, he believes landlords should be doing more to ensure the safety of their residents.
“Very often if it’s students [who are violating the resident limit] … the landlord will say they sublet, they’ve brought in additional people to reduce the rent,” he told the Daily. “It’s an unsafe situation … unfortunately, landlords are only concerned with collecting their rent and doing as little maintenance of the property as possible.”
According to DiRico, landlord accountability was an important point of discussion among Medford representatives and university officials alike throughout the deliberation process for the ordinance.
“The City Council, City officials and Medford residents expressed a desire to hold landlords accountable. It is important for landlords to act responsibly, take care of their property and maintain safe living conditions,” he wrote. “Our office looks forward to continuing to work with the City on this important matter.”
Feltch said that, while Medford Mayor Stephanie Burke hopes the ordinance will not deter students from seeking off-campus housing in Medford, she would like to see Tufts expand its on-campus housing options.
“This ordinance does not deter them from living in the City,” Feltch told the Daily in an email. “It provides an inventory of where students are living and acts as a precautionary measure for dwellings that the students are inhabiting.”