It is illegal to run a rooming house without a license.4 Having a license gives someone official permission to operate a dwelling as a rooming house.
Typically, a license shows that a rooming or lodging house has complied with certain building codes and other requirements. For example, all lodging houses in Massachusetts must have automatic smoke or heat detectors.5 Some cities and towns also require lodging houses with 6
or more lodgers to have automatic sprinkler systems.6
Sometimes, a person operating a lodging house may try to avoid the licensing process because it can be expensive to meet the requirements. If a landlord is cited for running a rooming house without a license, it does not necessarily mean that the landlord must obtain a license or that all tenants have to move out. Instead, a landlord could comply with the law by renting rooms to 3 or fewer lodgers so as not to need a license.7
On the other hand, some local enforcement agencies have tried to use the state law to require a lodging house license when 4 or more unrelated roommates rent a whole place together (as opposed to 4 people each renting a room individually). This is not correct. Tenants living together as a single housekeeping unit should not be considered lodgers.8 Some cities and towns may have their own local definition of a "lodging house,"9 and there may also be local restrictions on certain living arrangements in areas zoned
for family dwellings.10 For example, the Boston Zoning Code prohibits more than five undergraduate students from sharing rental housing in family-zoned areas.11
Check with your local Board of Health to see if your community has local ordinances or orders that apply to rooming houses. It is important to understand, as a renter, whether there are any local ordinances that may affect your rights if
any action is taken against your landlord for not having a lodging house license.12
Also, as a renter in a lodging house it is important to know that licensed lodging houses can be inspected by licensing authorities and
by the police upon request by the licensing authorities.13 An operator of a lodging house can be required to keep a register of the names of all lodgers. Such a register may also be inspected by licensing authorities and the police.14
4 . "Whoever conducts a lodging house without a license shall be punished by a fine of not less than one hundred or more than five hundred dollars or by imprisonment for not more than 3 months, or both." G.L. c. 140, §24. See also Ali v. Goyteche, Western Housing Court, 13-SP-4648 (Fields, J., January 28, 2014) (A landlord’s use of a premises as an illegal rooming house without compliance with city rooming house ordinance is a per se violation of the tenant’s covenant of quiet enjoyment).
G.L. c. 148, §26H provides that "in any city or town which accepts the provisions of this section, every lodging house or boarding house shall be protected throughout with an adequate system of automatic sprinklers in accordance with the provisions of the state building code." See Massachusetts Sober Housing Corp. v. Automatic Sprinkler Appeals Board, 66 Mass. App. Ct. 701 (2006) (upholding sprinkler requirement for a sober house for up to ten veterans in Chelsea where the City of Chelsea had adopted the provisions of G.L. c. 148, §26H, in 1989, but nonprofit landlord was trying to distinguish itself from a "lodging house" to avoid cost of $25,000 to install automatic sprinkler system).
In addition, any building of more than 70 feet in height must "be protected with an adequate system of automatic sprinklers in accordance with state building code requirements." G.L. c. 148, §26A; see also G.L. c. 148, §26A½ (requirements may vary depending on date of construction). See 780 C.M.R. §900 for state building code regulations about automatic sprinkler systems.
7 . In Boston, pursuant to the Consent Decree in Sang Vo v. City of Boston, 2005 WL 3627054 (D. Mass., Jan. 24, 2005), a family counts as one person. This means that a landlord could rent one room to 2 brothers, a second room to a single man, and a third room to a mother and 2 children, and not be required to obtain a lodging house license (because when you count each family as only one person, the total number of lodgers would be counted at 3, even though in this case there would be 6 people). Occupancy requirements still apply, however, in terms of the square footage needed per occupant. See Floor Space section in this chapter.
8 . Sang Vo, v. City of Boston, U.S. Dist. Ct. Civil Action 01-11338-RWZ (Memorandum of Decision and Order), 2003 WL 22174432 (D. Mass., Sept. 22, 2003); see also Hall v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Edgartown, 28 Mass. App. Ct. 249, 256 n.9 (1990) (holding that should more than 4 tenants sign a lease, "whether a zoning violation exists will depend upon whether the tenants live together as a single housekeeping unit in a family-like situation. We acknowledge that the test is not easy to apply").
Hall v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Edgartown, 28 Mass. App. Ct. at 256 n.9 ) (should more than 4 tenants sign a lease, "whether a zoning violation exists will depend upon whether the tenants live together as a single housekeeping unit in a family-like situation. We acknowledge that the test is not easy to apply"). As summarized by the Appeals Court in Hall, 28 Mass. App. Ct. at 256, fn 8, a zoning ordinance limiting the number of unrelated persons living together in residential districts survived a federal equal protection and First Amendment challenge in Belle Terre v. Boraas, 416 U.S. 1 (1974). However, in a later case the Supreme Court required that municipalities not unduly restrict the meaning of "family." See Moore v. East Cleveland, 431 U.S. 494 (1977). State courts are split on the validity of such restrictions. Some interpret their state law in accord with Belle Terre. Others, construing regulations under state constitutions, view such restrictions unfavorably.
In City of Worcester v. Bonaventura, 56 Mass. App. Ct. 166 (2002), the Appeals Court interpreted a Worcester zoning ordinance defining "lodging house," "[t]aken together" with definitions of "dwelling" and "family," to hold that "a lodging house is clearly defined [by the City of Worcester] as a dwelling unit that is rented to 4 or more persons not constituting a family." In Worcester, a local zoning ordinance defines "family" for purposes of single- and multi-family dwellings as one or more persons occupying a dwelling unit "and living together as a single housekeeping unit, not including a group of more than 3 persons who are not within the second degree of kinship."
12 . Sang Vo, v. City of Boston, U.S. Dist. Ct. Civil Action 01-11338-RWZ (Memorandum of Decision and Order), 2003 WL 22174432 (D. Mass., Sept. 22, 2003). The U.S. District Court ruled in the Sang Vo case that the tenant families, whose landlord had commenced eviction proceedings against them as a result of city enforcement action against him, had a "manifest interest in maintaining a home and a landlord-tenant relationship." Therefore, the "government cannot deprive [the tenants] of this interest without affording them [i.e., the tenants, not just the owner] due process of law."