Massachusetts law distinguishes rented dwellings from lodging houses with regard to the requirements, rights, and remedies for the landlord or owner of the property and the tenants or lodgers. By statute, when a dwelling unit is occupied by “four or more persons not within second degree of kindred” to each other, that unit is considered “lodging,” and not a rental unit. In order to legally operate a lodging house, the owner of such units must obtain the necessary licenses, subject to fines or imprisonment for failure to comply.
The lodging house act was enacted during World War I as a reaction to concerns over immoral conduct and the spread of sexually transmitted infections. The Act divided persons who reside with their nuclear families, or are related within a second degree to the person owning the premises, from other, unrelated individuals who reside with each other. The Act applies to fraternity houses and dormitories for educational institutions, with the exception of dormitories for philanthropic institutions or nursing homes. Lodging houses have separate standards for complying with Massachusetts law, which are separate from standards set against apartment buildings and units. In addition to the licensing requirement, lodging houses must comply with the applicable building codes, they must provide kitchen facilities equal to or greater than 150 square feet in area and include a gas or electric plate or stove, a refrigerator, and hot and cold water, unless the city or town where the building is located has contrary regulations or bylaws. Lodging homes are also subject to the requirement that they not be used for any “immoral purpose” and the owner of the lodge must keep a register of all persons occupying units in the premises.
More recently, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) addressed the implications of the act in City of Worcester v. College Hill Properties, LLC, relative to private rentals to college students. In that case, the defendant property owners owned several two- and three-family properties and leased each unit to four unrelated college students under annual lease agreements. After investigating the units, the City of Worcester cited the defendants and ordered them to cease and desist from operating unlicensed lodging houses. The defendants refused to comply with the order and the City filed suit in the Housing Court. The Housing Court held that the units, as occupied, constituted “lodgings” under the law and ordered injunctions against the defendants. This ruling was upheld by the Massachusetts Appeals Court and the defendants ultimately appealed to the SJC. The SJC reviewed the historical differences between “lodgings” and apartments and analyzed the plain dictionary definitions to determine whether the defendants’ buildings were apartments or lodging. The SJC overturned the Housing Court’s ruling, finding that the City of Worcester’s interpretation of “lodging” (that the plain meaning of “lodging” and “let” suggested that the statute applies to “any place to live in any house”) was myopic and would “lead to absurd results and selective enforcement.” The SJC therefore refused to adopt the interpretation put forth by the City of Worcester and followed by the Housing Court, holding that the defendants were not operating “lodgings” within the meaning of the act.
The SJC’s interpretation in College Hill Properties has created a logical standard for distinguishing lodging houses from apartment buildings and has helped to facilitate the increased need for housing for college students in Massachusetts. If you are a property owner who rents to multiple unrelated persons or are considering renting in Massachusetts you should contact an experienced attorney to ensure compliance with all laws regulating rental apartments and lodging houses.