Landlords are rejecting undergrad applicants, and it’s all perfectly legal

Renting Spring House Hunt
. —John W. Tomac for The Boston Globe

Bella Manganello knew it would be hard to find an off-campus apartment, so she set her sights wide. The rising Boston University senior looked in Brookline, Cambridge, Brighton, and beyond, but whenever she spotted a good, affordable place, she got the same response.

“Oh, you’re a student,” they’d tell her. “Sorry. We don’t do students.”

That might sound like discrimination, but it’s perfectly legal for landlords in Massachusetts to decline to rent to undergraduates — and many do just that. There’s no civil rights law around housing protecting students, which means property owners are free to turn down coeds’ business.
That doesn’t make it any less frustrating for people like Manganello, who was looking for off-campus housing as a cheaper way to spend the summer in Boston working as a dog groomer and taking extra classes.

“I’m very responsible and very mature, and I always have been,” she said. “And it was very frustrating to be grouped in with people who they deem to be irresponsible or loud or couldn’t pay or would damage things.”

But many people in the real estate business say the typical undergrad renter isn’t much like Manganello.

“Undergrads will trash your place nine out of 10 times. They just don’t care,” said Dave Monheit, a partner at Encore Realty in Brookline. “They don’t see it as somebody’s property, someone’s belongings. It’s just where they’re staying.”

Laws in Massachusetts don’t consider students a “protected class,” a designation that provides groups with special safeguards against discrimination. That means lessors are allowed to discriminate based on educational status, but not race, age, marital status, disability, or several other factors.

But landlords who have a policy against renting to students can’t make any exceptions to their blanket bans, because doing so would risk allegations that they were discriminating in some other illegal way. For instance, a landlord with a ban on undergrads would not be able to rent even to a 30-something person returning to school to complete a bachelor’s degree, industry observers said.

Chris Saccardi, a Newton attorney who specializes in landlord-tenant law, said he wouldn’t advise anyone to ban students outright — even if it is legal to do so. There are other ways to make sure you’re getting a reliable, responsible tenant, he said.

Looking at credit scores can tell a landlord a lot about a person’s qualifications, for instance. For landlords concerned about being left on the hook for damage or unpaid rent, there’s always the option of asking a renter for a guarantor to cosign the lease.

“I would advise them to document the reasons for rejecting an applicant. Give everyone an application, accept it, and evaluate it against other folks that have applied,” he said. “My advice to landlords is not to discriminate.”

But if current Boston real estate listings are any guide, that’s not a universal point of view.

“Studio in Lux Comm Ave Bldg w Roof Deck & More! 7/1 No students,” reads the headline of one 446-square-foot pad in Brighton going for $1,575 a month on Craigslist.

“2 Bd on Peterborough St. FENWAY w/ H&HW incl! 9/1 No Students Sorry,” another says, offering a spot for $2,800.

The distinction has bifurcated the rental market in Boston, with a stark distinction between landlords who specialize in renting to students and those who don’t. Sometimes the owners or managers of off-campus apartments will leave them in shabby shape, with the expectation that students won’t stay long anyway.

In rare cases, student rentals have ended in tragedy. In 2013, Binland Lee, a 22-year-old marine science major at Boston University, died in a fire while trapped in an illegal attic apartment.
Stories like that are among the reasons that Manganello mostly kept that area off her list when she was searching for an apartment — despite its proximity to BU.

“I wanted to try to stay out of Allston because I’ve heard and seen that some of the apartments are not too nice,” she said. Manganello wanted to be “somewhere where my parents would feel safe with me living, somewhere where I’d feel safe walking home at night.”

In recent years, area colleges have been looking for new off-campus options for their students, and Boston officials have been urging developers to create new student housing.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh has called for the construction of 18,500 units of student housing by 2030, and there are some hopeful signs. Scape, a British housing company, has plans to create as many as 2,000 opportunities in student-dense Fenway — though neighbors have expressed concerns about the plan.

Still, people in the industry say the city’s housing laws could continue to make student housing unappealing for smaller landlords.

Greg Vasil, president and chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Boardcq, said a state law placing additional restrictions on homes with four or more unrelated people living together is always a concern in renting to undergrads.

That can be hard to enforce if people move in without joining the lease, he said, and a landlord can wind up on the hook.

“It’s just an extra thing that you’re regulated by the city for,” he said. “I’m in a highly enough regulated industry.”

There also are other considerations, he said, like the concerns that longer-term tenants in a building might have about messes and noise created by students who won’t stay more than a few years.

Manganello eventually found a place in Brighton, a two-bedroom that she plans to share with a fellow BU student. She was able to rent a condo from a first-time landlord who didn’t have a problem with Manganello’s academic pursuits.

Even after weeks of frustrated searching, Manganello said, she still thinks of her status as a student more as a qualification than a detriment.

“I think it’s kind of a smart decision,” she said. “You’re in college, so it must mean you have a sense of responsibility. Obviously it took a choice to be here.”

Andy Rosen can be reached at [email protected]. Subscribe to the Globe’s free real estate newsletter — our weekly digest on buying, selling, and design — at Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @globehomes