Every year a number of unfortunate stories make the news about too many students crowded into apartments. Recent incidents have included fires in overcrowded multi-family buildings and deck collapses where too many people crowded onto upper floor balconies. In light of such tragedies, one would reasonably expect efforts by municipal governments to limit the number of students living in an apartment to be upheld by the courts.

However, a recent decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (City of Worcester vs. College Hill Properties, LLC and another 465 Mass. 135), issued in May indicates that efforts to regulate the tenants to whom a landlord can rent must pass judicial scrutiny.

In the College Hill Properties case, the City of Worcester attempted to restrict the ability of landlords to rent to four unrelated adults, who were college students. The City based its effort on the Massachusetts Lodging House Act, which was enacted during World War I to combat immoral conduct and the spread of venereal disease. The Lodging House Act, Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 140, Sections 22-31, defined a lodging house, in part, as “a house where lodgings are let to four or more persons not of second degree of kindred”. Worcester argued that the two family and three family rental properties they were trying to restrict were lodgings. The landlords countered that they were renting apartments, each with a living room, dining room, kitchen, bathrooms and bedrooms.

The court reviewed the purpose behind the Lodging House Act and determined that there was a difference between lodgings and apartments. The Court found in favor of the landlords and reversed the lower Court’s judgment of contempt and the fines that had been imposed.

While this decision may be viewed as a short term victory for “freedom to rent,” it is important to recognize that the Court noted that municipalities have a valid interest in protecting student safety and that those concerns can be addressed through the enforcement of zoning and other laws.

Given the changing nature of the definition of what constitutes a “family,” we can expect efforts by cities and towns to regulate rentals by requiring that tenants are “related to one another” to be challenged on constitutional and other grounds. However, landlords also should expect increasing efforts by Boston, Worcester, Springfield and other cities and towns where colleges and universities are located to revise their zoning, health and sanitary codes to better regulate the number of occupants in any apartment.