The Risk of Off-Campus Housing

mission-hill-apartmentsIn 2014, the Boston Globe’s Spotlight division published a trio of articles named Shadow Campusthat highlighted the dangers of overcrowding in off-campus housing at schools like Boston University and Northeastern. The combination of careless and sometimes greedy landlords and neglect by city officials to enforce laws cultivated neighborhoods of broken down apartments, jam packed with students at risk. The Globe’s series was sparked by a string of tragic events in these neighborhoods, exposing this screwed up system.

First, in January of 2012, a house fire at 84 Linden St, in the city’s Allston neighborhood, took out a student apartment, forcing residents to jump from windows to survive. One student suffered a fractured spine, while another was in a coma for nearly two weeks.  Then, in April of 2013, another fire erupted on the same street, tearing apart a student apartment housing 13 people at the time. It claimed the life of 22 year old BU student Binland Lee. Aside from their locations, these two residences had something in common: rampant code violations, leading to unsafe living. They were both crowded over the legal limit, with people living in areas that weren’t meant to be bedrooms, and hadn’t been inspected by the city in years.

This is what most off campus student housing looks like. According to the Globe, students are “living in filthy units where doors don’t lock or windows don’t close, where heat doesn’t work or it won’t ever stop, where rodents and pests are daily visitors, where bedrooms are crammed illegally into dingy basements or into fire-trap attic apartments.” 

My experience this year, living on Mission Hill, where many Northeastern students reside, can confirm that this phenomenon is not going away. My apartment was ripe with poor insulation, broken locks, rodents, and shoddy smoke detectors. My unit had six people living on the third floor and attic levels of a triple decker, even though only four were put on the lease, a common tactic used to bypass zoning laws.

Aside from being unsafe for those living in them, these apartments stuffed with students are a nuisance to the communities, which still have families and other long time residents living in them. In Providence, Smith Hill has filled up with these types of student apartments and out of control parties have severely disrupted the neighborhood. Unsurprisingly, there have been two major fires in student-housed triple deckers in the neighborhood in just the past few months. Last year, in response to a series of wild parties, community activist Kobi Dennis said that students in the area, mainly from Providence College and Johnson & Wales, are “littering out of this world — and Radcliffe (in Smith Hill) is a beautiful street. They’re kids, that’s fine. But don’t go terrorizing our streets because you go to PC.” The same goes for neighborhoods in Boston, where parties disrupt the quality of life of residents and leave the streets trashed.

This issue goes very deep, and there are a lot of separate parties, such as irresponsible students, greedy landlords and neglectful city officials, who share a portion of the blame. For this article, though, I am going to focus on the schools.

With the growing off-campus student population invading neighborhoods and putting kids at risk, the city has called upon Universities to build more on campus housing. In 2014, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, called for colleges in Boston to add 18,500 new dorm beds before the year 2030, citing his “concern for the health and safety of every young college student living off campus in overcrowded apartments.” I was unable to find a call for more student dorms in Providence, but Brown University has never been shy in building more dorm buildings.

The problem that I have with this solution, is that in order to persuade students to live in safer and less disruptive on-campus housing, Universities have to make them desirable, and this is one of their biggest failures. Dorms are both wildly expensive, and filled with rules and restrictions. If colleges want students to stay on campus for longer than a couple of years, they have to make affordable housing, and begin to treat their students like adults.

At Northeastern, guests have to be signed in to buildings by proctors every single time they enter. There is no alcohol, each person can only sign in a limited amount of people, and RA’s patrol the halls to enforce quiet hours. A few months ago, I was even given a citation for a noise violation at 11:00 PM on a Friday night, and had to go to a hearing with the school. Why on earth would somebody in their early 20’s choose to pay significantly more money to live in these buildings?

If schools are serious about protecting their students and the neighborhoods that they inhabit, they have to change the way they look at upperclassmen dorms.


If you have any thoughts on this issue or would like to share your off campus housing experience in Boston, Providence or any other college town please comment on the article or email us at


2 thoughts on “The Risk of Off-Campus Housing

  1. Great points here. A few things that came to mind were that colleges, while sitting on massive endowments are tax-exempt. The more land Brown University buys, the less property tax Providence collects, and this is true in other cities. The universities are too often motivated by money. They want to fit in more students to collect tuition at the expense of host cities that can’t house these students. There is also the liability issue. If a dorm allows alcohol and a party gets out of control and someone gets hurt, or alcohol poisoning the school will get sued. Same with signing people in. If security is lax and someone is assaulted, the school is liable. So many (oppressive) rules and regulations we all have to live with in so many areas of our lives have to do with liability (and the stupidity of some). Maybe there should be dorm choice for legal age students. Alcohol free, drinking allowed, quiet dorms, high security, moderate security… I don’t know, that pigeonholes people, there is an upside and a downside of most things.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry for the late response. These are all good points. I see the tax exempt issue as one of the biggest problems facing Providence right now as all of these schools, especially Brown, look to expand. In terms of liability I agree that is probably what the Universities would say in response to this. I still think there is a way around that. I think they could make specific upper classmen dorms that could use keys and be set up like regular apartment buildings. There could be waivers to be signed for liability and people who would rather stick with the current system could just stay in existing dorms. Also in terms of building new dorms, we can see that the high-class environment they try to create, while nice, is not the top priority for most students. If kids would rather elect to live in crappy apartments that means that affordable living is more important than state of the art buildings.


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