- Changes with Fraternal Law
- Ringleader of Marching Band Hazing Sentenced to 77 Months in Prision
- Maine Supreme Court Hears Case on National Fraternity Liability
- In Boston, City Officials Use a New Tool to Regulate Fraternities
- UVA: A Clear Case for Due Process
Newsletter > January 2015 > "In Boston, City Officials Use a New Tool to Regulate Fraternities"
In Boston, City Officials Use a New Tool to Regulate Fraternities
Steve Baker, Chair of the Association of Independent Living Groups at MIT, Inc.
(the MIT Greek Alumni Conference), Past National President, Theta Xi Fraternity
As has been widely reported, fraternity and sorority systems on many college campuses across the country are again facing heightened scrutiny of their members’ actions and more severe disciplinary processes. It has been common to read news stories of collegiate administrators imposing temporary or permanent Greek party bans and suspending chapters and even entire campus Greek systems for the misbehavior of a few bad actors. While the power of university administrators to regulate Greek systems is well understood, another potential challenge for fraternities and sororities is the increasing willingness of municipal officials to use local health and safety codes to control student misbehavior. In Boston Massachusetts, with the largest college student population in the country, local officials are now applying zoning and building code enforcement powers to restrict student parties. Fraternity and sorority houses are highly visible targets for their efforts.
November’s issue of Fraternal Law included a story about numerous Greek party bans and suspensions, including one that occurred at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in September. As was reported, MIT temporarily banned fraternity parties larger than 49 people. The ban has since been relaxed, but strict limits on the size of social events remain in place. Many observers assumed MIT was responding to the same political pressures as other colleges have faced, but in fact the circumstances are quite different. MIT’s action was taken not as a result of a campus incident, but in response to moves by City of Boston officials to use zoning and building code enforcement powers to limit student activities. What happened at MIT may be of interest to Greek advocates around the country, and especially those in other densely populated cities where fraternity houses are in close proximity to their neighbors.
At MIT, most of its 32 fraternity and sorority chapters (plus 5 other non-Greek student housing cooperatives) are housed in off-campus residential buildings owned by local alumni corporations. 25 of them are located in the City of Boston, all in gentrified neighborhoods of multi-million dollar homes. While most of these chapters have owned and occupied their houses for many decades, they are now increasingly surrounded by newly-arrived affluent neighbors who know how to use city hall to get what they want. And what they seem to want is fewer college students as neighbors, fewer and smaller parties, and less noise.
Triggered by two MIT fraternity incidents two weeks apart in September 2013 that received widespread coverage in the local news media (one involved a late-night roof deck party with a live band that generated numerous noise complaints and triggered multiple citations; in the other incident, a student fell through a skylight on a fraternity house’s roof deck), the City of Boston’s chief building code enforcement official withdrew all of the fraternity and sorority houses’ assembly occupancy permits—which permitted the chapters to hold parties and other large events in their houses—stating that they had been issued without proper documentation. The assembly permits had first been issued in 2001 and renewed annually without incident or request for information. In 2013, however, the city requested that MIT and the alumni property owners submit a building code analysis for each property, demonstrating that the house could safely accommodate party guests.
MIT administration officials—who have been very supportive of the Greek system on the campus—and the alumni property owners jointly hired a code consultant to review the buildings and present proposed assembly occupancy figures. After multiple document filings and numerous meetings with city code enforcement officials over several months, however, it became evident that city officials were unwilling to issue new assembly occupancy permits. Instead, the university officials understood that the city expected MIT to manage this issue on its own, which it did, by adopting a new policy (developed with extensive student and alumni input) to moderately limit the number of students who could be present in each house for a party.
Then in September, at a (dry) recruitment party at MIT’s Lambda Chi Alpha chapter, an allegedly intoxicated student fell out of an open window. Fortunately, she was not seriously injured, but the ensuing media attention again focused the spotlight on alleged misbehavior at student parties, and at fraternity houses in particular. The municipal response was swift. The city’s chief code enforcement official announced a new interpretation of the state building code, in which a gathering of more than 49 persons in a fraternity or sorority house would be considered an “Assembly.” He further stated that the City’s zoning ordinances prohibited Assembly uses (any gathering over 49 persons) in fraternity and sorority houses without a zoning variance, and that any violations of this new policy would put the city-issued dormitory licenses of the chapter houses at risk. Thus MIT was forced to adopt the 49-person restriction that was widely reported in the news media, lest it risk losing its Boston Greek houses.
In effect, using zoning and building safety codes as its instruments of action, the city had banned parties in fraternity houses in Boston without any consultation or public process. This action appeared to disregard precedent; most of the affected chapters had been living in their houses – and holding occasional large parties – for decades without being cited for violation of city or state codes. Further, some of the chapter houses had bed counts exceeding 49 residents, so even a chapter meeting with only the residents present would have at least technically violated the city official’s directive. It is difficult not to see the city’s action as a political response to local media attention to issues of perceived student misbehavior.
After several meetings with MIT officials, Boston code officials have since agreed to a slight relaxation of the occupancy restriction, allowing up to 49 party guests in addition to the number of beds in the chapter house and waiving occupancy limits for chapter meetings and similar daytime events. The city has also agreed to revisit the possibility of re-issuing assembly permits that would allow for larger events, but the approval path for such permits appears to be very steep.
It is clear the city’s primary issue is with late-night parties where alcoholic beverages are being served: city officials have stated that parties cause noise and create safety concerns for students and their neighbors. They are using zoning and building codes and levers to address these issues. Some local alumni believe that the city’s actions are overstepping its legal authority: the affected chapters have in most cases been in their current houses since long before adoption of the current zoning ordinances and building codes and thus would seem to be existing non-conforming uses exempt from current code requirements. But with the current public mood in Boston, a legal challenge to force the city to re-issue fraternity houses assembly permits is not considered viable. Instead, Greek organizations in Boston must adjust to the new reality that holding larger parties is no longer possible.