Five Is a Crowd: A Constitutional Analysis of the Boston Zoning Amendment Prohibiting More Than Four College Students from Living Together

By Crane, Edward D. | Suffolk University Law Review, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview
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Five Is a Crowd: A Constitutional Analysis of the Boston Zoning Amendment Prohibiting More Than Four College Students from Living Together


Crane, Edward D., Suffolk University Law Review


"It's 11:30 at night and you want to go to bed, but there's a party going on next door. You tell them that; they don't care. It's having your wife go out to get the paper and cutting her feet on a bottle some undergrad smashed on your doorstep the night before. It's begging [Boston College] to assign its security people to Mary Ann's ... at closing time, so that you're not awakened at 2 a.m. by 300 kids, all plastered, screaming and shouting at each other as they parade back to campus.... It's having some idiot race across the tops of six cars on your street.... This is what it's all about. These streets look like Times Square when the parties break up." (1)

I. Introduction

Boston, Massachusetts is home to thirty-six institutions of higher education that enroll close to 140,000 students, including graduate and part-time students. (2) These institutions provide many different benefits to Boston. (3) For example, colleges and universities spur the local economy by funneling educated young people into the local workforce and by creating a large number of jobs. (4) Despite these benefits, the presence of so many higher-education institutions also leads to problems. (5)

One such problem is the friction between Boston's permanent residents and undergraduate students who live off-campus. (6) Although almost half of Boston's undergraduate students live in campus dormitories, many colleges do not own enough dormitories to house all their enrolled students and require some students to live off-campus. (7) According to Boston Redevelopment Authority statistics, almost 13,000 undergraduate students live off-campus. (8) Conflicts between permanent residents and college students generally arise out of rowdy student behavior, as older residents decry disruptively loud parties that feature binge drinking. (9) Permanent residents also complain of student residents neglecting basic property maintenance and allowing their households to become neighborhood eyesores. (10) After years of attempting to control student behavior through increased policing, the city of Boston recently implemented a direct limitation on off-campus student housing. (11)

On March 12, 2008, the Boston Zoning Commission amended the Boston Zoning Code to restrict more than four undergraduate students from living together in a leased dwelling. (12) The amendment redefined the term "family" in the zoning code by explicitly stating that five or more full-time undergraduate students do not constitute a family. (13) This redefinition made it illegal for five or more undergraduate students to live together, as the City of Boston zones residential districts strictly for "family" habitation. (14) Proponents support the new definition because it strikes directly at the overcrowded, student-occupied dwellings that proponents believe are the main cause of neighborhood disruption. (15) Opponents believe the amendment arbitrarily targets undergraduate students and will result in higher rents. (16) In addition to public policy concerns, critics have raised serious issues regarding the amendment's legality. (17)

An important legal question is whether the amendment violates either the Federal Constitution or the Massachusetts Constitution. (18) The amendment may unconstitutionally discriminate against college students by singling them out for regulation. (19) The new definition of "family" might also unconstitutionally infringe on college students' right to choose their roommates. (20) Furthermore, the amendment may be so arbitrary and irrational that it fails even the most deferential test of constitutional analysis. (21)

This Note explores the amendment through analysis of the aforementioned constitutional issues. (22) Part II.A summarizes the legal challenge that prompted Boston to amend its zoning code. (23) Part II.B examines case law relating to potential constitutional challenges to the amendment involving heightened scrutiny.

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