The rules of the Boston student housing game may be about to change, big-time.
An amendment to the city's zoning code that was passed unanimously by the City Council in December aims to limit the number of college students who can live together in a residential area to four, regardless of the size of the unit.
The proposal, originally sponsored by City Councilor Michael Ross, changes the definition of family in the zoning code to exclude five or more unrelated students. An updated version sparing graduate students from the limit passed muster with the Boston Redevelopment Authority last week, clearing the way for a public hearing with the city's zoning commission March 12.
Just what Mayor Thomas M. Menino thinks about the proposal is unclear. A reporter's call to his office last week was redi rected to the BRA.
About 13,000 full-time undergraduate students attending area universities live off campus, according to BRA figures.
Ross, in a Feb. 19 presentation before the Allston Civic Association and in an interview with the Globe last week, said he was not certain whether the proposed legislation would apply to students already locked into a lease.
The amendment, he said, is intended to keep landlords from converting spaces in large, multibedroom homes, such as a dining room or a back porch, into additional bedrooms that would draw more students and a higher monthly rent.
"This is not so much a behavioral issue," said Ross, who represents Beacon Hill, Back Bay, and Mission Hill. "It's an economic equality, leveling of the playing field," designed for families to be able to compete with student budgets.
The proposed occupancy limit has gained traction with several neighborhood groups, including the Allston Civic Association and the Community Alliance of Mission Hill, and has also been backed by representatives of Northeastern University and the Wentworth Institute of Technology.
"The real problem is these houses become a source of revenue for people, and they know people will pay more for a house because they can get a high rent out of it," said Paul Berkeley, Allston Civic Association president.
With Ross's legislation in place, he continued, "It might not be so attractive to the absentee landlords, and maybe they could either sell the home to a family or turn it into condominiums for a better use than what we're getting out of them now."
It would not please entrepreneurs like Matt Hayden, however. Hayden, a BU sophomore studying finance, started working part time as a real estate agent last fall for Boardwalk Realties in Allston.
His clients have been mostly college students who are renting for the first time, looking for off-campus housing in a neighborhood known for its relatively affordable rates, multi-bedroom homes, and popular restaurants and bars.
Hayden said he has already passed papers on a half-dozen spots in Allston/Brighton scheduled for a Labor Day move. "I just rented a six-bedroom apartment down the street to a group of six guys," he said. "If that legislation is passed, I don't know how the landlords are going to make enough to pay their mortgages and get the rent that they're going to get."
Real estate representatives say they are concerned about the proposal's enforceability and potential consequences.
"Once the students are in, they can bring in a couple more kids," said Lenore Monello Schloming, president of the Cambridge-based Small Property Owners of America.
Schloming and others speculated that the zoning change could create a housing shortage and increase competition among student tenants.
"It's like musical chairs," said Greg Vasil, chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. "You take away a chair and somebody's going to be left standing."
Enrique Silva, an urban affairs and city planning professor at BU, said he believes the proposal would essentially create "a second-class resident."
"The biggest issue here," he said, "is that it's trying to control leases and occupancy and density of uses, and the way that zoning is set up now, you can control density and occupancy issues, but they're across the board. It's the legislation of the actual space, not regulating the occupant - regulating the use and density of a space blind to the type of users."
Silva is skeptical that the legislation, if it becomes law, will ever amount to much.
"Does this just amount to political grandstanding," he asked, "or are they going to put the money and the needed resources into actually enforcing this?"
Jeffrey Doggett, on the other hand, sees value in it. The Northeastern director of government relations and community affairs believes the proposal would create more of a "give-and-take" between students and landlords, who in some cases, he said, "are buying these triple-deckers in Mission Hill and setting a rental price that is way beyond what would normally be paid."
"The biggest effect it'll have is that owners will start thinking twice about what the rent will be and what upkeep they're going to have," Doggett said. "I would envision a scenario where, if you can't market your unit as the only unit that can have seven people in it, the choice is going to be a lot greater and therefore they're going to have to provide better upkeep of their building."
While Northeastern currently is in the midst of a 1,200-student dorm project, Boston College is planning to spend $1.6 billion over the next decade to expand its Chestnut Hill campus as part of its 10-year master plan.
The plan calls for the creation of dormitories for 610 students to allow more undergraduates to live on campus, a longtime priority for Mayor Menino. (How it will eventually shake out is very much up in the air: Late last month, the city urged the school to back off its notion of housing 500 of those students on the archiocese's old Brighton land.)
But in conjunction with its building plans, BC officials have proposed a contingency that would restrict its students from leasing one- or two-family homes in Brighton, according to college spokesman Jack Dunn, who added that it could be enforced by denying registration or through strict sanctioning of policy offenders.
Under the proposal, Dunn said, BC could flag students who register for class using an address that falls within a specific block or section of the neighborhood that is known for having high-occupancy housing.