The Complete Landlords’ Guide to Lodging and Rooming Houses in Massachusetts

By Kimberly Rau, MassLandlords writer

with Peter Shapiro, contributing

Rooming houses – that is, rental units where individuals rent access to a single room versus renting use of an entire property – have a long history in America, but not always the best reputation. Many people may imagine rooming houses as run down, or an opportunistic zone for illegal or immoral activity. It’s why Massachusetts requires anyone running a rooming house to be properly licensed.

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Rooming houses come in all shapes and sizes, but what’s the difference between a lodging house and a standard rental?
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But what, exactly, is a rooming house? How do you know if you need a special license for your rental unit? What can you do if it turns out you’ve been accidentally running a rooming house, or boarding facility, all this time? And if you haven’t had experience with rooming houses, why would you ever consider operating one?

Traditional Rentals vs. Rooming Houses

A traditional rental is easily explained: a family, or group of individuals, rents an apartment, house or some other domicile (trailer, condominium, etc.) from a landlord or property management company, signing a lease for a determined amount of time and paying rent for the duration of the lease. Typically, in this arrangement, the entire unit of people is collectively responsible for the rent (in other words, if three friends rent an apartment, and one friend moves out, the remaining two are still responsible for the entire rent payment each month).

In contrast, a rooming house, also sometimes called a boarding house, lodging house or single-room occupancy (SRO), operates differently. In that scenario, four or more people, unrelated to the person who operates the rooming house, rent a single room from the operator (which may or may not have amenities such as en suite bathrooms or kitchenettes). Some tenants may stay in the rooming house for a few days, others may rent a room for years or more. Sometimes, tenants in rooming houses pay rent by the day or the week, and may share bathroom facilities with the people renting the other rooms. The kitchen, if there is one, may be shared among the boarders.

The person who operates the boarding house may be a landlord or manager who may or may not live in the domicile. In any case, rooming houses fall under special licensure guidelines from the state, as well as any ordinances that exist in the relevant municipality.

One key difference between traditional rentals and rooming house tenancies is whether essential facilities, such as bathrooms and kitchens in some cases, are under the exclusive use of the tenant, or whether they must share these areas with separate signatories.

Legal Definition of a Rooming House or Lodging House

When we speak informally, we don’t distinguish between rooming or lodging houses. But Massachusetts law defines two separate things based on the renters who occupy it. For instance, MGL Ch. 140 Section 22 defines a lodging house as “a house where lodgings are let to four or more persons not within second degree of kindred to the person conducting it and shall include fraternity houses and dormitories of educational institutions, but shall not include dormitories of charitable or philanthropic institutions or convalescent or nursing homes licensed under section seventy-one of chapter one hundred and eleven or rest homes so licensed, or group residences licensed or regulated by agencies of the commonwealth.”

Separately, MGL Ch. 111, Section 199b defines a rooming house as “every dwelling or part thereof which contains one or more rooming units in which space is let or sublet for compensation by the owner or operator to four or more persons not within the second degree of kindred to the person compensated.” This definition is only used as a deleading exemption, provided no one under the age of six resides in the rooming house. Since the deleading laws only apply to this age anyway, this definition is of no interest to landlords. Landlords must still delead rooming houses where children live. For the purpose of this article, we are referring to lodging houses or rooming houses interchangeably, and we mean to invoke the Chapter 140 definition only.

Per Chapter 140, lodging houses with four or more renters living in the building at the same time must be licensed. But that’s not as cut-and-dried as it may seem.

First, rooms do not necessarily have to be rented to individuals. You might have two or more individuals in a room jointly and severally liable for their room rental. However many people you rent to, all rooms must meet the square footage requirements under the state sanitary code. According to 105 CMR 410.400, that’s 80 square feet for an individual renter, or 60 square feet per person if the room is shared with someone else. If you have a family of four that wants to rent a room, and that room is 240 square feet, you’re in compliance with the law. Note that this square footage requirement is not the same as when the entire dwelling unit (rather than rooming unit) is rented out.

Second, note the exceptions. For instance, sober housing is not considered a lodging house, and therefore does not fall under the licensing requirements of Chapter 140. Convalescent or nursing homes, hospitals, infirmaries, or “boarding homes for the aged” are also not subject to Chapter 140. These are separately regulated.

Third, it matters whether you are renting a complete dwelling or a room. Chapter 140 talks only about whether renters are related. But case law from Worcester vs. College Hill Properties builds on the Chapter 140 definition to separate lodgers with rooms from tenants with possession of a complete dwelling. Because this distinction is not written into the law, we need to explain the case and its gray-area limitations.

In the early 2000s, the city of Worcester tried to limit the number of students who live together in an apartment by deeming such rentals “lodging houses.” The court of appeals upheld this decision in 2002, but in 2013 the Supreme Judicial Court issued a decision that raises questions regarding the earlier ruling. Suffice it to say the court forbade application of the lodging house law to renters with possession of a complete dwelling. (If you’d like to read the entire 2013 ruling, it’s City of Worcester v. College Hill Properties, LLC.)

Unfortunately for us, the court left open the possibility that the city might make and enforce its own ordinance, which is what Worcester has done. Therefore, in Worcester, four or more is still too many even on a joint and several lease for a complete dwelling.

MassLandlords maintains that any such ordinance is vulnerable to a lawsuit under the Fair Housing Act. Checking whether people are related to one another, even after they have signed a joint and several obligation for a full dwelling, is a thinly justified policy with a discriminatory disparate impact on the basis of at least one major protected category: international students routinely come here without income and team up to form large, stable households, but Worcester does not allow this.

So to summarize: think of yourself as a lodging house in need of licensure if you rent by the room and a needed facility (e.g., kitchen, bath) is not under the exclusive use of your renter. Don’t think of yourself as a lodging house if you sign a joint and several agreement for a complete dwelling.

You may be cited by your town or city depending on what ordinances they have and how many people are on the joint and several agreement. If you are cited for having too many unrelated people in your unit and you have rented an entire premises jointly and severally, then contact us.

What are the Requirements for Operating a Rooming House?

If you have a boarding house setup that requires a license, there are a few things you’ll need to do to ensure you’re in compliance with the state sanitary code.

Per 105 CMR 410 and MGL Ch. 140, landlords operating a rooming house must:

  • Provide one bathroom with a toilet, sink and shower or bathtub for every eight rooming house renters.
  • Clean the bathroom every 24 hours if the bathroom is shared (so if you’re lucky enough to have an en suite bathroom for every room, you may be able to skip this one).
  • Provide automatic smoke or heat detectors.
  • Provide sprinklers if there are six renters or more. (Your local ordinances may allow you to wait on this one until you are pulling permits for another job that would make this upgrade feasible, but check with your municipality to make sure.)
  • Provide a room that is at least 80 square feet for a single occupant, or 60 square feet per person if the room is shared with another person.

You do not need to provide a kitchen to your renters, but if you do, the kitchen must have a sink, stove, oven, storage space and “space and proper facilities for the installation of a refrigerator.” If you have a larger rooming house, between six and 19 renters inclusive, you may provide a kitchenette in the room, but only if the room exceeds 150 square feet of space. If you opt for this, the kitchenette must have a hot plate, refrigerator, and a sink that has hot and cold running water.

Besides that, many other standard landlord-tenant rules apply. You need permission to enter a tenant’s room, unless it’s an emergency. You must keep on top of pest control and repairs. And you must still follow proper eviction procedures, though in most cases you will not need to issue a 30-day notice to quit. Tenants in residence for three months or more require different notice lengths, depending on why you are evicting them (seven days for damaging property or causing a nuisance, 14 days for rent owed, 30 days for other reasons). In no circumstances can you lock a tenant out without a court order.

Finally, your city or town may have additional licensure requirements.

What Are the Benefits and Drawbacks to Rooming House Rentals?

Renters find boarding houses attractive for many reasons. Many potential tenants will be drawn to rates that are typically lower than an Airbnb rental. That, combined with not being locked into a long-term lease, will make rooming houses ideal for per diem workers who may only be in the area for a short, or undetermined, amount of time. Students who are not interested in a traditional dorm situation may also be drawn to the independence a rooming house offers, without getting bogged down by a lease or needing to find roommates. Then there are those who may have sold their house but are still looking for their next property (or are waiting to be able to close on their mortgage).

Your rooming house will likely be most attractive to people looking for shorter-term commitments and more budget-friendly options. This will mean more single individuals and couples, and probably fewer families. You may also see young professionals who are not ready to commit to living in a certain city yet.

Of course, there’s the other side of the coin: dealing with multiple rental agreements means dealing with a lot of different people, some of whom may pay their rent right on time, others who may require you to do a lot of door-knocking to collect. You’re also going to have to figure out how to meet requirements for things such as daily bathroom cleaning.

It’s also worth considering that rooming house tenants who have lived in the unit for less than 30 days do not require the same lengthy eviction notice as a tenant with a traditional lease. In theory, that means you can turn over your units faster than if you had a longer notice period. But no eviction is fast or desirable. If you manage your lodging house poorly, you could easily end up with more losses than income.

I Want to Start a Rooming House. What Do I Need to Do?

First things first: check with your city or town to find out what the licensing procedure for your municipality is. Some areas may follow the state requirements and nothing more; others may have more boxes for you to check.

At minimum, you will need to comply with state and local building codes. Your local building department will need to approve your setup, and you’ll need to follow the requirements outlined in the prior sections. Additionally, you’ll need to have the proper fire extinguishers, exit signs, automatic fire systems, sprinklers and smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. This could mean an extensive renovation, depending on what is already in place.

Annual inspections are required, and your egress inspection certificate must be kept current. It’s important to realize that although your local inspection department’s mission is to protect the health and safety of the residents, the department also wants you to provide housing. Talk with them and see what solutions you can come to that keep everyone safe but also protect your wallet. Although health and safety are paramount, your local officials do want to find workable solutions. Communication is key.

The highest hurdle to clear will probably be zoning. If you’re lucky, your rental unit is already properly zoned for a rooming house, but this is not a given. If you are not already zoned for a rooming house, you’ll need a variance from your zoning department. Depending on the neighborhood, your abutters may make this an arduous task. Here also, communication is important. Talk with your neighbors. Have a clear plan for your rooming house and be prepared to show how it will be an asset to the area.

For the ZBA hearing, it’s a very good idea to get testimony from renters who would want to live in the rooms, non-profits who will refer renters to you, neighbors who support affordable housing, and city councilors.

Help! I’ve Been Running a Rooming House and Didn’t Know It!

It would be hard to operate a boarding house and not be aware of that fact. The multiple separate rental agreements would be a big clue. A more likely scenario is that you weren’t aware you needed to be licensed. Maybe you started out with just one or two rooms, and didn’t realize expanding to four or more was a game changer. Maybe you’ve just gotten lucky and no one’s reported you (so far).

Whatever the case, you know now, and you need to be proactive. Don’t wait for a tenant to make a complaint or request an inspection to get licensed. That can open the door to fines and penalties, including jail time. It’s in your best interest to get licensed as soon as possible.

If you don’t think you can get your residence into compliance, then you can also downsize or dissolve the arrangement (following all state and local guidelines) until you are ready to get licensed.

Conclusion

In summary, running a rooming house isn’t right for every landlord, or every location. You may find your four-bedroom colonial an hour from the nearest big city doesn’t attract the kind of student or worker population that would make it worthwhile (but the family of five who wants to live the suburban life will be thrilled to sign for the whole place). Conversely, you may have a wonderful location that is attractive to prospective rooming house tenants, but neighbors who will fight you tooth and nail for a zoning variance.

However, if you are willing and able to get the necessary variances (or are lucky enough to already live in a place zoned for rooming houses), can do the work to get properly licensed and you are in the right place to make it worth your while, a rooming house could be a great way for you to maximize your rental’s overall profitability, along with providing affordable housing to those who need it. As always, check with an attorney if you have any concerns about drafting your rental agreements, and consult your local laws before opening your rooming house.

Do you have a rooming house success story you’d like to share? Email us at hello@masslandlords.net

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