Thursday, March 13, 2008

Boston Roommates : Five's a Crowd

So Boston finally decided to do something about slumlord converting 2 bedroom apartments into six bed places by changing every single room into a bedroom, shoving as many students in there as possible, and jacking up the rent. New rule is: no more than four non-family members to a place.

Slumlords are, not surprisingly, frantically shoveling the bulls**t trying to fight the measure. Fortunately they lost and it looks like the rule is now the law in Boston, but check out this gem in the Boston Globe article on the issue:

Some property owners denounced the plan as unenforceable and said it would backfire by deepening a housing shortage that would drive up rents.

They urged the city to focus on enforcing other occupancy codes and on cracking down on absentee landlords, rather than restricting their property rights and ability to turn a profit.

"If you reduce my five-bedroom to four, I'll just raise the rent to what I would have gotten," said Greg Hummel, a Brighton property owner. "And if students can't afford it, do you think the Starbucks crowd will pay any less?"

How do you know if a landlord with student renters is lying? His lips are moving.

Let's take a slightly closer look at Mr. Hummel's assertion, marked in bold (my emphasis) above. A look at Boston Craigslist on Thursday March 13th, with search term "Allston" (a somewhat-grungy neighborhood, popular with students) and set to 5 beds yields many entries. The average seems to be around $3800/month.

So that's $760/mo per roommate....$3800 divided by five.

Now let's reduce it to only four roommates; $3800 divided by four means it's $950/month.


Yeah, you really think anyone's going to pay almost a grand a month for that craphole in Allston?!?! Good luck on that, pal. That much per month gets you a place in generally-much-nicer Central Square or Cambridgeport in Cambridge...or even Coolidge Corner in Brookline.


Spreggo said...

This law means I'll probably have to drop out of school. I'm a full time student and I live with my girlfriend. We had a room in an apartment after our lease ran up this year, but with the new law we can't get it. I can't afford to split rent any less than 5 ways. And yes, people will pay that much a month to live in a shit hole in Boston. I can barely afford to live here as it is. I have two choices: drop out (so I don't count as a student) and work full time so that my girlfriend can stay in college ( and so I can stay with her) or go back home to New Hampshire. It was hard before but now living here and going to school here are completely incompatible, for someone like me.

Aaron Read said...

Well, to be honest with you Spreggo, you're spinning a sad tale but you've left out some crucial details.

First of all, this new rule only applies to Boston proper. Not Somerville. Not Cambridge. Not Watertown. Not Brookline. Not Quincy. Not any one of a dozen towns within reasonably "easy" public transit rides to any college located in Boston proper (or really most of the metro Boston area). So if you're telling me you're going to, say, UMass Boston and you can't deal with having to live in Quincy or Somerville...I got no sympathy for you whatsoever. Not when I had to hoof it in from Melrose to Cambridge every day for my job.

Second, and I acknowledge that a blanket statement like this might not really apply to you and your specific situation...but there are way too many college students out there getting into way too much debt for the sake of a piece of paper.

Granted, granted, when that piece of paper says "Harvard" on it, it can mean something more than if it says "State U". And I'll admit that if your plan is to go to grad school, then where you go to undergrad does matter quite a bit.

But for most careers, it REALLY doesn't matter what college is on that piece of paper; it just matters that you have it. I suppose where you go to college has SOME influence (less than you'd think...unless, again, it's Harvard) on what networking and contacts you can build for your post-undergrad career. But I can guarantee you that having 5+ figures of debt the day you graduate will influence your life a helluva lot more (and for the worse) than any vague contacts or networking.

The upshot here is that if you're doing everything you can to live and go to school in Boston and racking up major debt to do so because it's so ridiculously expensive...then you're at the wrong college. No matter how "good" a certain college is for what you want to do with your life, it's NOT worth destroying yourself financially to do so; seen too many of my friends go down that road. A degree from UNH and much less debt on your credit report will serve you much better.

Spreggo said...

I'm actually going to art school, whose papers almost never mean anything: career building is not my reason for going to college. As such I have no intention of doing what most people do, which is getting 50k in loans and paying it back for the rest of their lives. My unwillingness to live off money I don't have is probably the biggest reason it has been difficult to pull off.
Going to art school for the sake of being a professional artist also means I can't skimp on the quality of the education. Luckily my school is relatively cheap with high quality faculty and programs. When I graduate I have a paper that means very little and could be from anywhere, but the quality of, say, my portfolio, which depends on a high level of understanding of the subjects, is what I am going to rely on as far as eating and bills go.
My purpose wasn't to spin a sad tale (blogging isn't going to fix the problem anyways) but to make the point that this law doesn't actually fix much of anything. Instead of targeting actual problems, it targets students, who end up being the biggest losers. It is difficult for a student who lives within his or her means to live at all in Boston as it is, in part due to slumlords doing what this law is supposed to prevent. But rather than actually help those on the edge, it pushes them over.

There has to be a better way to actually target the problems facing Boston neighborhoods, that can be beneficial to both residents and students. I won't pretend like I know what that resolution would be.

That all being said, the good thing about a degree in art not meaning much is that I can leave school without the years completed being a waste. If I need the degree to get better filler jobs, I could, like you said, just go somewhere cheap.

Aaron Read said...

Ah yes - you've definitely hit upon a case where that "blanket statement" I made really doesn't apply.

I see your point, but ultimately I stand by my original assertion. It's true that some, possibly a lot, of students are going to get royally screwed by this new rule.

However, I still believe that ultimately the single largest factor driving up rents in Greater Boston is the student factor. Generally students have access to larger incomes (via parents) to afford higher rents for the same (or lower) quality rental properties. This gets doubly true as tuition and fees have skyrocketed and only the rich (or at least rich-er) can afford to send their kids to colleges like BU, BC, Harvard, Emerson and MIT.

The problem is compounded by these same colleges growing their student rosters. Whether or not they provide sufficient student housing is irrelevant, because whereas a non-student resident pays state and local taxes, a student generally does not. Worse, every on-campus housing bed added takes one more person off the property tax rolls. And to get even more worse, most students don't vote...or at least, they don't vote in local elections (because they're registered in other states).

I believe this new rull will indeed make it impossible for as many students to come to Boston and thus lowers the overall student population, and thus ultimately lowers rents and improves the quality of the rental properties as you have less demand and more picky people doing the remaining demanding.

Is this unfair to students? Of course it is. The difference many have failed to see is that the previous situation was pretty goddamn unfair to the local cities and towns who had to deal with all the crushing infrastructure costs and not getting any of the accompanying tax revenue (instead relying on piddlingly small "payments in lieu of taxes" handouts).

Oh well. It's not like this is a great solution - like I said, someone's still getting screwed and it looks like you could be among them. I'd start looking at apartments in Somerville, I guess.

At least you're committed to not acquiring debt; congrats on that and stick with it! Trust me, you won't regret it. :-)