Worcester Revisiting “Four or More” Rule on Density

On April 10, the Worcester City Council forwarded a moratorium on the “four or more” rule concerning unrelated residents to the Economic Development Subcommittee. This is generally viewed as a favorable step towards reform.

Worcester as seen from one of its nine college campuses. MassLandlords Paul Nguyen CC-BY-SA-4

The “four or more” rule prohibits four or more unrelated occupants from cohabiting unless the premises have been licensed as a lodging house.

In 2013, City of Worcester v. College Hill Properties, the state struck down the city’s application of MGL Ch. 140 Sections 22-31, the lodging house laws. The narrow ruling didn’t prevent the city from enacting its own zoning ordinance, which it did and has since enforced.

Specifically, a “lodging house” under the City of Worcester Zoning Ordinance (as amended through May 2, 2017) is “A dwelling or that part of a dwelling where sleeping accommodations are let, with or without kitchen facilities, to four (4) or more persons not within the second degree of kindred to the person conducting it.”
An owner with a legal four-bedroom who rents to four unrelated college students, or to a married couple, their child, and an aunt, could be cited for noncompliance.

By count of bedrooms, approximately 300 properties in the city are currently enforced under capacity.

At the April 10 hearing, Councilor George Russell echoed the concerns that led to the ordinance in the first place. Russell said the “four or more” rule was a helpful tool in code department’s toolbox for when college students throw a party or park illegally.
The College of the Holy Cross neighborhood had a reputation for being unpleasant to live in before Holy Cross began screening students for off-campus residency rights. The default is now that students must live on campus.

Councilor Morris Bergman called for a moratorium on enforcement. Councilor Sarai Rivera cited the need to reform the ordinance. Both discussed the housing shortage, the high cost of housing, and the possibility of permitting greater density only in preexisting units.

Worcester is home to nine colleges and universities. Worcester houses over 30,000 college students. It is not known whether the ordinance or Holy Cross administration was principally responsible for the improvement in the Holy Cross neighborhood.

The Economic Development Subcommittee will examine whether existing city ordinances and the state sanitary code and building code may already provide the needed enforcement options, and whether the economic benefits outweigh any costs. At time of writing, the next meeting was scheduled for May 10.

MassLandlords facilitated attendance at the hearing, and echoed the recommendation at The City of Worcester Task Force for Sustaining Housing First Solutions (to address homelessness).

“Housing is a spectrum, and we need to free up more of it if we’re to have any hope of housing extremely low-income residents,” said MassLandlords Executive Director Doug Quattrochi.

Owners are organizing grass-roots over the MassLandlords message boards. Interested owners are advised to join and/or contact their city councilors.

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