A lower limit on unrelated housemates

This guest post was written by Ira Bryck, Amherst resident and president of the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley, also based in Amherst.

When my family moved to Amherst in 1993, we were fully aware that it was a college town, and looked forward to that influence on our new home.

Amherst is often considered among the best college towns in the nation, and this has much to do with a healthy balance between town and gown, and  protecting affordability for young families.

My contention is that an over-abundance of student rental houses has put home ownership (or rentership) out of reach for the next generation of families we all say we want.

I think a move from the current unenforced limit of four unrelated people in a house, to an enforced limit of three, would have a positive effect on the character of our town and its housing economy.

A house with four students, each paying $800, would be less affordable if three students had to cover that $3,200 per month. I predict those students would seek cheaper housing out of town, or live on campus.

That would create a downward pressure on prices, so a young family could compete to rent that house, or a student landlord would opt to sell that house to a young family, with the price reflecting some deflation of the bubble.

And a pressure on UMass to provide more on-campus housing, in the apartment (not dorm) style that students want. (I’m glad to hear of the new on-campus project, netting 600 more beds.) UMass claims to already house a greater percentage of students than average, but most state universities are not in small towns, and we cannot absorb the student rental population. Amherst already has 60 percent of its houses as rentals, and this has created a bubble and a powerful motive for profiteering.

These market forces would also reduce demand for more outsized buildings downtown. I agree with the many people who think this is an absurd location for buildings that function as private dorms. As well as seeming unattractive, they have been able to avoid setbacks, due to seeming flaws in our zoning bylaws, as well as parking and affordability, and have altered the streetscape of our New England town for generations.

I recently conferred with Robert Frank, a renowned Cornell economics and management professor, author of many books, his textbook co-authored with Ben Bernanke, on his view of this economic problem. Here is his reply:

“Re your question about the effects of limiting occupancy in rental houses to three unrelated individuals: Ithaca has had exactly this regulation for many years. It was adopted with the goal of maintaining a stock of housing in the city that would be both affordable and attractive to families.

“When landlords are free to stuff 7-10 students into a house, the resulting revenue boosts the value of the house as an investment to a level far above what most families could afford. Simultaneously, it creates noise, litter, and parking problems that make the environment unattractive to families. As in many other markets, there is no presumption in an unregulated housing market that an invisible hand automatically produce outcomes that are best for the community as a whole.

“Ithaca’s ordinance has been effective, but it requires vigilant enforcement. If landlords sensed that they could get away with violating it, the economic incentives to do so would be irresistible.”

Add to this a comment made to me by Steve Schreiber, chair of the Planning Board, who is interested in causes and solutions to our imbalance: “Until 2009, UMass required all first year students and sophomores to live on campus (with some exceptions). That year, UMass no longer required its 5,000 sophomores to live on campus (there was an on campus housing shortage). That one change sent up to 5,000 potential renters into the communities. According to UMass, only 1,250 sophomores live off campus — that’s still a big number. I think your proposal is worth considering.”

He also took the step of exploring the aforementioned Ithaca regulation, and he comments: “Ithaca seems to be even stricter than represented above. Three unrelated adults are only allowed in duplexes, but only if one unit only has a single individual. Single family houses can only have functional families +1 unrelated adult. Massachusetts is different than NY and it may be more difficult (if not impossible) to define ‘functional family.'”

Here’s the actual law: “ITHACA—DWELLING, ONE-FAMILY [Amended 4-1-1981 by Ord. No. 81-2; 1-8-1990 by Ord. No. 90-2] A dwelling unit occupied exclusively for residential purposes by an individual or family and not more than one unrelated individual or a functional family unit. In the R-1 Zones, occupancy by an individual or a family and not more than two unrelated individuals is permitted if the dwelling is owner-occupied. In the R-2 and R-3 Zones, occupancy by an individual or a family and not more than two unrelated individuals is permitted.”

Steve also notes that in Massachusetts, two college towns (Lowell and Worcester) have a limit of three.

I do not pretend to have all the answers or know the future. I think our new Town Council will serve us well by exploring the consequences of various strategies. Several people who once objected to my proposal to amend and enforce our over-occupancy regulation now say it’s an idea worth considering.

I hope that nothing I am saying is construed as me not fully supporting quality of life for students, or not supporting the rights of a non-traditional family to have a safe and supportive home. For me, this issue is about creating a sustainable balance in our community, and resisting the market forces that lead to market speculation and how it disadvantages people.

I thank Nick for inviting me to publish my views on his blog.


Comments 15

  1. OMG. So. My 5 bedroom house, with its $8,000 a year tax bill, should only have 3 people in it? Mean spirired, unconstitutional interference in my private life and a denial of my fundamental human rights. Hell no!

  2. Thank you Ira. This is a great idea for the council to explore. I hope they will consider lots of independent, creative ideas for zoning. I’m curious whether the town limits the number of parking permits per house in downtown? That could help too.

    I’d like to talk with you about how the downward pressure on rents would advantage families more than students. That seems tricky.

  3. hi Andra– I’m not an economist or a planner. But here’s my thinking: the downward pressure on rents IS CAUSED BY limiting to 3 the number of unrelated housemates their can be. If a landlord then reduces the rent from 4 people at $800 each to 3 people at $800 each, it remains just as affordable to each student, but also a family can offer $2400 instead of $3200 (ie: is not longer as priced out of the market). If a landlord sticks to the $3200, there’s a greater chance the students will live where they can afford (maybe not in Amherst, as it’s such an expensive town, unless you overcrowd houses). Those empty houses will probably drop in price, either for rent, or a purchase price, as the landlord might realize it’s no longer as good an investment. In every case, the family has a better chance.

    PS: read the experience of the Cornell economist: it works in Ithaca!

    thanks– Ira

  4. This trifecta could have a remarkable effect on neighborhood stabilty:
    1. UMass reverts back to its old policy of requiring first year and second year undergraduates to live on campus (with some exceptions).
    2. UMass provides more housing on campus, most likely through public-private partnerships, without encroaching on established neighborhoods.
    3. The Town of Amherst considers reduce the number of unrelated adults per household from 4 to 3.

    Regarding Simon Peter Alciere’s comment above, the proposed law would not restrict the occupancy of his house to 3 people. It would restrict it to 3 unrelated people, or any size group of related persons.

      1. In 1974 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court decision in Belle Terre, but that does not seem to have settled the federal constitutional issues raised in the St. John’s Law Review (nor issues under various states’ constitutions) with respect to these “unrelated co-habitants” zoning bylaws….

  5. From the town attorney in 2010: “You have requested an opinion regarding the legality of the definition of ‘family’ set forth in Section 12.14 of the Zoning Bylaw. In my opinion, Section 12.14 of the Zoning Bylaw does not infringe on any right protected
    by the United States or Massachusetts Constitutions. In my further opinion, a group of unrelated individuals
    have no constitutionally protected right to live together. ”

    A proposed change from 4 to 3 would have to have some nuances. “Four unrelated adults” can mean these 2 scenarios: a) single homeowner who has 3 unrelated roommates -or- b) investor property that is rented to 4 unrelated people. Scenario “a” actually encourages community stability, as that homeowner (who may be an empty nester, or a retiree, or whatever) is able to stay in his/her house. Scenario “b” generally does not lead to neighborhood stability.

    1. Can someone answer what Town of Amherst department is supposed to enforce the current laws for the number of renters per units in apartments and rental housing? What kinds of “fines,” if any, are given? Do owners of unrelated occupants have to file with the Town? Thank you!

      1. Post

        The people in the Inspections Department have their hands full now. If they were asked to step up enforcement, beyond responding to complaints, they would probably need more staff, whether the limit was four or three.

        1. Thanks for the information about the Inspections Department and that enforcement is only complaint driven. Perhaps it’s time to look at department priorities and access if a part-time staff member can be hired. It seems to me that in a college town, enforcing the number of unrelated folks in rentals would be important for fire, health/safety, neighborhood parking overrun as well as the rental market implications for planning.

  6. I’m replying to replies to my letter, by expressing my perspective on how limiting (to 3) unrelated housemates in Amherst is a good thing:
    • The St John’s law review article (Local Zoning Ordinance Violative of Equal Protection (Boraas v. Village of Belle Terre) covers these main principles and observations:
    o Any restriction on who or how many unrelated residents may live together must “bear a substantial relation to the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare.” It is my contention that overcrowding of students in a house can create an unsafe situation; plus harm the general welfare of a town that is attempting to be sustainable as a college town that is affordable for families.
    o I think that limiting this overcrowding does not “impinge upon their fundamental rights of privacy, association, and travel.” Nobody is censoring their right to associate or to privacy. Amherst’s government and citizenry are a mecca of free expression. It is more about preventing private homes that function as private dorms, harming the character of the neighborhood, as well as Amherst’s housing economy.
     Also, the article points out that “the Supreme Court has not squarely addressed the issue whether unrelated persons such as those in Belle Terre fall within the purview of freedom of association”
     The article also states: Among the rights protected by the First Amendment is the right of individuals to associate to further personal beliefs.” To date, the Court has not been called upon to expand freedom of association beyond the more obvious first amendment areas of political expression. Defining overcrowding as more than 3 unrelated people doesn’t impinge on a student’s political expression. Those students can express themselves in all the same ways that anyone can; overcrowding is not a political expression.
     I also don’t think that this type of limit would discriminate against non-traditional families. The case could easily be made and understood to the town when a group of individuals truly defines themselves as family, whether blended, gender non-normative, or any other innovative self identification.
    o The St John’s article makes the point that “to theorize that groups of unrelated members would have more occupants per house than would traditional family groups, or that they would price the latter out of the market or produce greater parking, noise or traffic problems, would be rank speculation, unsupported either by evidence or by facts that could be judicially noticed.” In Amherst’s case, this is not speculation. It is apparent and easily measurable, looking at police reports, UMass discipline records, and testimony from many residents that are surrounded by overcrowded student houses.
    o Again, from the law review article: “Traditional zoning, which might legitimately restrict the maintenance of a boarding house, would be regulating the use to which the land is put, having a neutral effect on the personal relationships of the building’s occupants.” I agree that what is needed in Amherst is regulation of the use. Four unrelated non-students do seem different to me than 4 unrelated college students. But to say that an overcrowded private house in a family oriented neighborhood is functioning as a private dorm would be a sensible method of controlling overcrowding. Plus, there are certain areas of Amherst that are specifically zoned to allow dormitories. Most neighborhoods in town that have a large number of overcrowded student houses are not in that small zone on Olympia Drive.
    o The article states: “the Village of Belle Terre (the defendant) will be required to show that its intrusions on this zone are necessary to further a compelling state interest.” I assume that state interest means government interest, so in our case, Amherst is the state. Its compelling interest is protecting the character of the town. This is the very core purpose of zoning, so it makes sense to me to have a zoning bylaw that defines 4 or more unrelated adults as an overcrowded situation.

    I have absolutely no desire to harm any person or individual investor. I wish students all the best in enjoying their off campus living experience, as long as it is not in an overcrowded situation. And I feel badly for anyone that overpaid for an investment property, or based their business model on that bubble persisting. It would be infuriating for me to buy an expensive student rental house, and then find I can’t make a profit, unless the house is overcrowded.

    I am optimistic that discussing these issues with all the sincere, intelligent, collaborative people who live in Amherst, or run our new government will result in solutions and an improved and balanced housing economy.


    Ira Bryck

  7. Post

    Ira, considering Steve Schreiber’s comment above about the two types of houses with four residents, would you be OK with an exemption for owner-occupied houses? These seem to cause fewer problems than ones with absentee landlords.

    1. I agree with Steve Schreiber that an owner occupant with 3 unrelated adults is very different from 4 unrelated adults; for the obvious reasons of helping that owner stay in their house, probably greater “ownership” and responsible neighborliness; and less of everything that would make that house quack like a dorm.

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