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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, May 26, 2024

A homeowner looking to rent out rooms was blocked by an obscure law — now lawmakers want to change the rules

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Somerville City Hall is pictured on March 12, 2022.

A Somerville homeowner attempting to rent rooms in his house to Tufts students has faced unexpected resistance from the city government on the grounds that his request to house unrelated students is unlawful. The homeowner, who requested that the Daily not identify him by name, has been appealing to the Somerville City Council for months.

The rule in question prevents more than four unrelated persons from living in the same unit and requires a group living permit, approved by a review board, to bypass the restriction. The homeowner’s son, who is a student at Tufts, lives with his father at the property.

The homeowner’s requests for a permit, however, have been deferred at several points, including at one point by Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne’s office. Denise Taylor, director of communications at Somerville City Hall, explained the decision to ask for a continuance.

“The City requested a continuance, which is a fairly common occurrence, to allow due diligence over a limited time period to review … the affordability impacts as well as potential safety or management needs of this proposal for a non-standard use,” Taylor wrote.

Judy Pineda Neufeld, the Ward 7 Somerville city councilor, has helped the homeowner throughout his application process, starting in September 2022. During the initial Zoning Board of Appeals meeting, held over Zoom, the homeowner shared his plan with the council, explaining that additional residents would move into the extra bedrooms in his house.

“[The homeowner] did his best to try and understand the concerns and really respond to [neighbors],” Pineda Neufeld said. “There [were] a number of folks on the call who were supportive, who know that we’re in a housing crisis, regionally, nationally, and feel like the more housing the better, which I agree with.”

Neighbors attending the meeting were primarily concerned with noise and parking. The homeowner addressed their concerns by saying he will have policies in place to minimize disturbances.

“The purpose of my family having the house here is to support my son’s education and help him transition into an independent person,” the homeowner said, according to an official meeting report. “Since I live in the house, I can interview and select tenants only from Tufts. I also have policies in the lease agreement by implementing Tufts student living policies, such as quiet hours, no smoke, … no parties in the house, no loud music in the backyard. I will supervise based on these policies.”

Despite the homeowner’s continued efforts, the vote for his permit has been delayed multiple times and has yet to be approved. Pineda Neufeld said that the case was “slated to be on the agenda in November” but was pushed back to December after the zoning meeting failed to reach a quorum. It was at a public commentary hearing when a nearby resident — later identified as Ballantyne’s husband — spoke out against the permit.

Taylor denied any connection between the opinions of Ballantyne’s husband and decisions made by the mayor.

“The Mayor’s focus on affordability is long-standing and well-documented and is not related to her husband’s personal opinions,” Taylor told the Daily in an email. “However, due to the proximity of this project to the Mayor’s home, she has recused herself from this matter and any findings related to Hamilton Road will not involve her.”

The Zoning Board of Appeals deferred the case to Jan. 4, when on the brink of resolution, a representative from the mayor’s office requested a continuance until Feb. 15 on behalf of Ballantyne.

“It is concerning to me that a family member of the current mayor could make a request and then suddenly, the city government seems to be holding back a permit from a resident,” Somerville City Councilor At-Large Willie Burnley Jr. said, adding that he is not in favor of the housing policy, which he said the city does not have the capacity to enforce on a large scale.

“This [homeowner] has gone out of their way to go about the right process and has had to wait for many months at this point,” Burnley Jr. said. “I think it’s quite a shame, the kind of struggle we’ve been putting this person through.”

The controversy has also sparked a debate about the law itself and whether it should remain in place.

Pineda Neufeld and Ward 3 Somerville Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen have begun the process of overturning the prohibition within the city government. According to the minutes of a Jan. 12 City Council meeting, Ewen-Campen, who serves as the council’s president, argued that the “law is unevenly enforced throughout the city” and is “discriminatory to low-income people and students.”

“I have always opposed this law, and I, for years, have been hoping to overturn it,” Ewen-Campen said at the meeting.

“There’s interest on the City Council to do away with this rule that feels outdated and doesn’t work for the city,” Pineda Neufeld said. “I think the more housing we can have for everyone in our community, from students, to families, to multigenerational living — all of that alleviates the crunch that we’re feeling.”