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SJC Sides with GBREB in Support of Worcester Landlords

On May 15, 2013, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in the case of Worcester v. College Hill Properties, LLC, unanimously ruled in favor of a group of landlords challenging citations issued by the City of Worcester. The Greater Boston Real Estate Board, acting on behalf of the Rental Housing Association, filed an amicus brief in the case. The issue involved the interpretation of the Massachusetts statute regulating "lodging houses," defined to mean any building "where lodgings are let to four or more persons not within the second degree of kindred" to the owner.

A Housing Court judge had previously ruled, and the Appeals Court concurred, that the landlords should have obtained lodging house licenses before allowing their apartments to be rented by four or more unrelated college students. This interpretation would have in effect turned apartment buildings into lodging houses and had an enormous impact on our membership and the industry. Fines totaling approximately $18,000 were also assessed and the landlords were ordered to have the occupants removed. Regardless of the living arrangements which were permitted by the landlords, it should have been clear to the Inspectors from the City of Worcester that these units were not "lodgings" under the statute. Each was configured as a traditional apartment, complete with a living room, dining room, kitchen and bathroom as well as separate bedrooms.

The SJC agreed with GBREB that the lower courts had improperly blurred the well-understood demarcation line separating apartments from lodging houses. Justice Barbara Lenk, who authored the opinion, confirmed that a lodger is typically assigned to a specific room while a tenant has the right to make use of the entire premises described in a lease. Disregarding this clear distinction "would lead to absurd results."

While the Appeals Court may have been correct when it noted that a group of college students "is not an arrangement that lends itself to the formation of a stable and durable household," statutory definitions are not supposed to be judicially expanded to satisfy some local interpretation of a desirable public policy outcome. Radical changes like those set forth by the Housing and Appeals Court decisions should not be made by judges "legislating from the bench." Decisions of that magnitude should be made on Beacon Hill by our elected members of the House and Senate. The Supreme Judicial Court made that statement loud and clear.