Realtors and students condemned the city's new occupancy restrictions against college students as unenforceable, invasive, and potentially discriminatory, but several legal specialists said yesterday that courts have consistently upheld similar measures in college towns elsewhere.
The new zoning regulation, approved unanimously Wednesday by the Boston Zoning Commission and expected to be signed soon by the mayor, limits to four the number of undergraduate college students who can live together.
Its approval has sparked widespread concern among college students whose living arrangements will be made illegal by the policy. Some students recently signed yearlong leases that could violate the pending regulation. Students and landlords also question how city inspectors will enforce the occupancy ordinance, and they fear that aggressive oversight will violate privacy rights.
"That's the big question floating around right now," said Joey Fiore, president of the student government at Northeastern University. "Everyone's worried and wondering how this gets enforced. There are so many unanswered questions."
Fiore and other college students said they staunchly oppose the change, and a group of real estate agents are considering challenging the law in court, according to the Small Property Owners Association.
"There are serious questions as to its legality," said the Cambridge group's executive director, Skip Schloming. "There are a number of issues, including whether this represents a [constitutional violation] under the Fifth Amendment. Many realtors have the space to rent to more than four people without overcrowding, so this is essentially a rent cap. We're expecting a legal challenge."
The new law has caused uncertainty among property owners, real estate agents, and students in student-rich areas.
"In Allston and Brighton, this is causing a great deal of heartache," said Malena Schneeberger, a rental property owner. "No one knows what will happen. It's unreal, a very crazy situation."
Students and agents said they do not believe that the city can root out violations without infringing on privacy.
"We believe this can't be enforced," said Greg Vasil, chief executive officer of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. "It's going to be almost impossible for a government regulator to figure out people's status."
City officials have pledged vigilance against violators, primarily by responding to complaints from neighbors. They said they will work with colleges to inform students and property owners about the restrictions.
Bill Good, commissioner of Boston Inspectional Services, said the department plans to meet Tuesday to develop a plan to enforce the new bylaw and review "procedures, policies, and legal issues that we have to address."
Lawyers said the Supreme Court, in a 1974 case Village of Belle Terre (New York) v. Boraas, upheld occupancy restrictions on unrelated people. Several Massachusetts towns with colleges - including Lowell, Fitchburg, and Salem - have imposed regulations but have not singled out college students, said Mark Bobrowski, a land-use lawyer and professor at the New England School of Law.
"It's easier to regulate indirectly than directly" because of the Supreme Court's decision, he said.
Other lawyers said that even housing restrictions aimed specifically at college students are constitutional. "They are not a protected class," said Stefanie Balandis, senior attorney for Greater Boston Legal Services.
The new ordinance could sharply change the housing landscape for college students, who often team up in significant numbers to afford steep city rents, and it could affect thousands of students who congregate in neighborhoods near colleges, particularly the Fenway, Mission Hill, and Allston-Brighton.
Councilor Michael Ross, the measure's chief proponent, said the ordinance simply restores previous regulations barring more than four unrelated people from living together.
"People should have realized that, eventually, the other shoe was going to drop," he said.
Some residents of neighborhoods near college campuses praised the restriction, saying it will prevent landlords from packing students into housing once marketed toward families. Students, they contend, have overrun their neighborhoods in recent years, turning quiet residential streets into quasi-college campuses with frequent, late-night parties.
"This is critical for our neighborhood and others to reclaim themselves," said Sandy Furman, a Brighton resident who lives near Boston College.
In December, the City Council approved the measure, and neighborhood groups quickly rallied behind it. In a rare show of town-gown solidarity, colleges have lent their support. College officials said yesterday they plan to inform students and parents about the occupancy regulation and continue efforts to add dormitories and urge students to live on campus.
In Bowling Green, a college town in Ohio, city prosecutor Matthew Reger said that courts have upheld the city's occupancy limits for unrelated residents and that enforcing the bylaw with fines and prosecutions has lowered rents and reduced noise complaints. But the city purposely steered clear of specifically naming college students.
"If we had, I think we'd have a problem," he said.