Every year BC students choose to forgo the dorms and live off campus. The promise of more freedom, independence and a way to save money appeals to many students; in a city with as many college students as Boston, however, options for off-campus housing are limited and potentially dangerous. In some cases, the promise of off campus living can even be fatal.
In April 2013, a Boston University student named Binland Lee died in a fire in the house she shared with 13 other students in Allston. The house had numerous issues, including only one exit, as well as electrical and structural problems. With only six bedrooms, the space held 14 students. Renters living in the attic and the basement, something that would have been caught and forbidden had the house been inspected, made this possible. During that tragic night in April, Lee was trapped in her attic room. Her roommates survived by either jumping from the second story or making it out on the first floor. Lee was unable to join them, trapped upstairs. She died from smoke inhalation.
The Boston Globe ran an investigation after Binland Lee’s death, looking into the conditions that allowed such a tragedy to unfold. Their yearlong investigation yielded the claim that “a collision of greed, neglect, and mismanagement is endangering young people in America’s college capital.”
Meanwhile, the landlords who improperly manage the off campus properties are seeing their profits soar, as universities such as Boston College lack the on campus housing needed to handle the entire student population. This neglect is “enabled by city inspectors who simply are no match for the health and safety challenges that result.”
In response, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh pledged to levy daily $300 fines on landlords found to be in violation of housing codes. The city will see an added influx of inspectors as well, looking to investigate more errant properties and prevent future tragedies.
Walsh will also be meeting with all area colleges and universities, asking them to share the names and addresses of students living off campus so that city services can build a database and identify overcrowded units. BC declined to do so in the past, claiming that federal privacy laws did not permit the university to comply. Federal regulators signaled that this was not the case and BC would be allowed to share its information with the city, but the school has not changed its policy.
Many students do not receive four years of housing, and are forced to rent or sublet spaces with other students for one or two terms during junior year. The houses and apartments BC students usually live in are safe and close to campus. However, overcrowding is always risky, and students sometimes try to fit more people in a house than they should, which could prove dangerous in the case of an emergency.
With plans of future development, BC has talked about expanding on-campus housing, making it possible for more students to live on campus or at least have the option to not live in a potentially unsafe situation. How Boston College responds to the increased pressure of ensuring that its student population is safely housed is just one of the points that remains to be addressed as the city confronts this problem.