The 4 or More Rule – Councilman Bergman
4 or more
Moe Bergman - Moe
Rich Merlino - Rich
Moe: Everybody hear me okay? How many people here have apartments that are affected by the four or more rule? So a few of you, a number of you. For the benefit of those that may not know, Worcester like other communities, has an ordinance that you can’t rent to four or more for unrelated people in a particular unit.
Audience: [inaudible 0:00:30]
Moe: I’m sorry. No more than three, so the fourth person makes a violation. Thank you. yes, unrelated. The reason where this gets to be problematic is that many of you have four-bedroom units, and you can’t always get a family to come in and rent from you, so now you’ve got those three bedrooms that you can rent out to three unrelated people but that fourth bedroom to me becomes almost akin to situations that happened in other communities where there’s rent control where you just tell somebody you can’t make any more money off that property.
Now the rule itself is interesting because if you read the ordinance, it says no more than three unrelated people. Unrelated people does not include adoption and does not include spouses, so technically a husband and wife with two adopted children are technically in violation of that rule, but we’ll go beyond that, which is the reality of today.
You’ve got Airbnbs that are renting out many bedrooms to many people that are unrelated, short-term and long-term, and the city is incapable because of the zoning ordinances to deal with that because it wasn’t anticipated the last time the zoning ordinance was created.
What I tried to do and some of my colleagues have been trying to do is try to see if we can get some movement on adopting a more property-owner friendly ordinance, so that we don’t prohibit the situation of more than three unrelated people.
How are we going about doing it? We tried to get the city to change and the state itself has been challenged on that exact ordinance and the state. The court has told the state under Massachusetts law, you cannot prohibit more than three unrelated people from living together, but the court opinion said that we’re not suggesting that municipalities can’t keep that rule in place.
If somebody quoted for us was coming after somebody under the state law, it’s considered now unconstitutional not to allow four unrelated people, but the City of Worcester have taken the position that does not apply to us as a municipality. We can still do that.
I’ve asked the tax assessor to kind of compile a list of units near college neighborhoods because I think the four or more rule hurts people mostly in college neighborhoods because those are the kinds of tenants you’re going to get and you can’t rent that fourth bedroom.
As it turns out, there’s not as many properties as one would think, and I think some of the neighbors are concerned that single-family homes are going to get turned into four or more if we change the rule. The truth of the matter is I don't think any of us in the city council nor I think any of you out there expect this to apply in a single-family home. What we’re trying to do is make the fourth unit rentable as an option.
I’ve also asked the tax assessor to come back with an opinion as to whether or not adding that fourth unit makes the property more valuable than it could be assessed for more. I’m not trying to raise anybody’s taxes here. I know you’re all probably saying we pay enough taxes. But it we can kind of press upon the city that if properties are worth more than we get more taxes, maybe we could be more lenient.
I’m just going to ask a quick question. How many of you out there that the assessor, Mr. Ford, said that adding a fourth unit said that adding a fourth unit adds value to the property. How many of you think he said that? How many of you think he said it doesn’t affect it? The answer is he said it doesn’t affect it, which I can’t really understand. Being a property owner myself. It doesn’t make any sense.
When I heard that at our most recent subcommittee meeting, I asked that we do nothing with that until another meeting in which we invite this organization and other property owners to weigh in. Really why I’m here is to encourage any number of you that can make it. We don't have a date yet, but I certainly will share that with all of you, to encourage as many of you as possible to come, and at least send some representatives because I think we’re at the junction now. We have a new fire chief. There was some hesitation to changing the law earlier because we had two fire chiefs within a short period of time.
The new fire chief. Whom I’ve spoken, to seems warm to changing this. The code commissioner, I believe, was warm to changing this. Now we can kind of encourage the rest of the city council, and I don't think we’re there yet. I think we have six city councilors that are in favor of changing the law, but if they see a number of you there and they smell more taxes—we smell more taxes, I’m part of the city council—I think it makes an easier sell.
Really we’re going to get a date and I’d like to see as much as you there as possible. It increases the value of your property. You get more rents coming in and I think it’s probably unfair to tell people that at that fourth-bedroom level, you can’t rent that out. I mean why not two? That would be terrible, right? But why pick on three or four.
I think the rule is unfair. It needs to be changed. We can change it as a city. I don't think it’s going to get changed locally in the courts. I think a lot of people don’t want to just go through the effort of filing lawsuits to challenge it.
I’ll also say too that, and one of the frustrations I have, is that we ask property owners to pay a lot of money in the city, which let you use your property in whatever reasonable legal way you can use it. I don't think preventing that fourth bedroom really is reasonable.
The excuses I’ve heard in the past is that while they’re trying to discourage college kids from living together, a family is much safer than a bunch of college kids. I disagree with that. You can get a family from another country that don’t speak English, may not be familiar with calling 911. There are safety issues that aren’t necessarily anymore sensitive to a family than the four unrelated people.
I just think it’s time for the law to change. I think we’re at the point in the city council where we can change it, but you guys have votes. You have influence, and I’ve been fighting this fight for two years with several colleagues. Hopefully, I can continue to fight for another two years. There’s an election is coming up, but regardless of whether or not it’s me fighting or somebody else fighting the fight, you all have to be involved if you want to see it changed. I hope you do want to see it changed because even if it’s not question of dollars and cents, you look at the Airbnbs. It’s just unfair.
I’ll say one other thing. The four or more, who is exempt from that? Not all of you who pay property taxes. It’s the colleges and universities who can have four or more people in a dorm room, and they’re exempt from the law. They’re not paying taxes. They don't need the extra income to help pay taxes, but yet they’re exempt and you’re not.
Why is it safer in a college setting than it is in your own setting? I don’t really understand that; never did, never will. We need your help. I’ll get the date to Doug and others, but I’m happy to stay around and answer any questions, but we’re on the precipice of getting this changed if we had your help and I hope you will help us.
Rich: Thank You very much, Councilor Moe Bergman.
Moe: Thank you very much.
Rich: All right. You can see that guy right there with your questions.
Gary: [unintelligible 0:07:20]
Rich: Would you want to offer an observation? Okay.
Gary: Thank you.
Rich: You certainly piqued my curiosity.
Gary: Thank you. Just for the record, my name is Gary Bracket. I’m an attorney in Worcester. A little bit of history regarding the subject that Moe just addressed. One of my clients, Mary [unintelligible 0:07:44], a property owner who rents to individuals in the city, came to me several years ago when Dave Holden was the building commissioner.
She had a five-bedroom unit. She had five people living in that unit, and the zoning order was issue, saying that was a violation of the zoning ordinance regarding the definition of a family of no more than three unrelated people.
We met with Dave Holden and I showed him that under the zoning ordinance at that time, a family was a definition of either a group related by blood, marriage, or adoption, and being the oldest of a family of 10 children, when we moved into a dwelling unit, there were 12 of us in the dwelling unit as a natural family.
But the definition of family was also three unrelated people, but the zoning ordinance at that time allowed us an accessory use either a natural family or a group of three to rent rooms to two additional individuals.
If my wife and I, my daughters were living away, we could rent rooms to two students at WPI or three unrelated people have unit, they could rent to two more people.
We convinced Dave Holden, under the city ordinance at the time, Mary Hube, could legally have five people in a five-bedroom dwelling unit. Apparently, the planning director, Joe Lerner, when he heard about the argument we made to the code department, decided to change the by-law.
I’m not sure if there was any real rational thought about that because someone before Joe Lerner had proposed the by-law that allowed three as a principal use, two as an accessory use.
One thing I’ll just caution you about because I did represent property owners in the Holy Cross College whole neighborhood that at one point, the city tried to argue that four people in a dwelling unit was a lodging house. I said to them, “No. Four people in a dwelling unit is one more than three allowed in a dwelling unit.”
Rich: Do you have any advice for us on this issue as we wrap up?
Gary: I just want to suggest to Councilor Bergman that if in fact this is coming up for discussion, I think there should be some review of the previous zoning ordinance that was changed by Joe Lerner as to why three as a principal use and two an accessory use would not be an appropriate remedy or to consider if we are, compromising that four unrelated individuals may occupy a dwelling unit.
You cannot distinguish between students or retired teachers from the Worcester public schools. If four teachers from the Worcester public schools want to rent a five-bedroom home, technically that’s illegal today. It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s Holy Cross or WPI neighborhood or four teachers wanting to rent a unit, that is technically illegal now. Under the former zoning ordinance, it would have been allowed.
I think this group, if you have any interest, once again it’s not just student neighborhoods. If you have a dwelling unit and you want to rent to more than three people, then I think you should go to a committee, as Councilor Bergman suggested, and be heard because a family limited to three unrelated people maybe appropriate in suburban settings where you have mainly single- and two-family homes. But in the second largest community in New England with 10 colleges and universities, a limit on three unrelated people maybe a little unreasonable frankly from where I sit.
Rich: You know a lot about this. I’m glad we have smart people coming to our meetings. Thank you very much, sir.