EXCLUSIVE: Illegal - Old Worcester Firehouse Violates State Law
Thursday, February 23, 2012
An old firehouse in Worcester has turned into an overcrowded single-family home, prompting questions about whether state rooming house laws are being violated.
One the of tenants at the Worcester Firehouse, Greg Opperman, told GoLocalWorcester refused to disclose how many people were living in the home, citing a state law that requires residents to file for a special license if too many people are living at a given property.
While Opperman wouldn't say just how many people are currently living at the property located at 126 Eastern Avenue, he did give a GoLocalWorcester reporter a tour of the house, where a chore board in the kitchen has the names of 12 people with designated daily duties in the house.
The 4 or more rule
According to Massachusetts State Law, if there are “4 or more renters living in a building who are not related to the person operating the building," it automatically becomes a rooming house. Operating such a rooming house without the proper license is against state law.
Opperman, who is identified as the co-op Treasurer, told GoLocalWorcester he is aware of the law, and would not disclose the number of people living in the building, “because of state laws,” he said.
Director of Worcester's Division of Housing & Health Inspec Amanda Wilson confirmed the property is not licensed as a rooming house.
Opperman is a 26-year-old independent software consultant and amateur photographer. The WPI alumnus said he worked as an intern in the 111-year-old Firehouse building, with the Participatory Culture Foundation. The non-profit media company held office space in the building while he was a student. He told GoLocalWorcester at the time, one young man was already living in a room in the 3-bedroom building.
Opperman said he moved into the Firehouse soon after, and that in March 2010, the then-landlord, Prentice Pilot, “declared Chapter 13 bankruptcy.”
“He said, ‘I’m out of here, you guys can stay here as long as you want,’” said Opperman. Opperman said he and others paid rent during their entire tenure at the house to Pilot, before purchasing it last month. “We actually had to pay a lot of rent, because it wasn’t per unit or room, it was per person,” he said.
Public records indicate the property was bought by the co-op for $162,000. The deed is currently in the names of Abdul Sherai and Rebecca Rothberg. They are listed as joint, unmarried tenants occupying the residence.
“I can’t tell you how many people are living here, but you can probably figure it out,” Opperman said. He indicated he is a full-time tenant, along with 25-year-old musician Mickey O’Hara. Both Sherai and Rothberg have legally declared the Firehouse as their homestead.
12 to 200 on a Friday night
Opperman said he wants the co-op housing to exist for artists and musicians to have a steady place to live while collaborating creatively. “But we all have real jobs,” he said.
Mickey O’Hara, a 2009 Clark University alumnus and electronic musician, moved into the property while it was on the foreclosure market. He had been playing in a band called Water, started “hanging out in the basement after practice,” and then became a full-time resident in May 2010.
Both Opperman and O’Hara said one of the primary functions of the Firehouse has been to host shows, from both local and touring bands.
“We can have anywhere from a dozen to 200 people in here on a Friday night,” Opperman said. Shows are played in the ground-level area residents call the “basement,” which now houses a full trailer and basketball hoop. Opperman said it was once the office site for the non-profit where he said he interned during college. The Worcester Fire Department told GoLocalWorcester that because the property is listed as a single-family home, it has never been inspected for potential fire hazards.
"I don't even know how many people are living over there, there are people going in and out all the time. Lots of people. The music is not too loud, but there are big parties up and down the whole street. They park their cars and block my driveway," said Lillian Degado, who lives 3 houses down from the Firehouse.
GoLocalWorcester contacted the Worcester Police Department, who said their records indicate that only 2 noise complaints have been filed against the property in recent years, one in 2005, and one in 2010.
The National Association of Housing Cooperative defines a housing co-op as “when people join with each other on a democratic basis to own or control the housing and/or related community facilities in which they live. Usually they do this by forming a not-for-profit cooperative corporation. Each month they simply pay an amount that covers their share of the operating expenses of their cooperative corporation.”
While the Firehouse Housing Cooperative, Inc. has incorporated itself through the state, the State Secretary’s Office told GoLocalWorcester that documentation does not pertain to operation or licensing.
Wilson said operating an illegal rooming house poses serious health and safety risks to residents. "It's absolutely a safety concern. It's listed as a single family home, and if emergency personnel went there, that's what they would expect. If there was a fire, they wouldn't know how many people need to be out and safe, they don't know what's going on behind that front door," she said.
The license is only $75. "But there are more stringent safety requirements with that license, because the people who live in these types of houses tend to be more transient," Wilson said.
Requirements include making repairs, supplying enough living space per individual (150 square ft. per person), and preventing fire hazards, but also extend to maintaining the sanitary codes for rooming houses.
In November 2011, several Worcester landlords went to court over housing groups of Holy Cross students without a lodging license (see City of Worcester v. College Hill Properties, LLC). College Hill Properties was fined $7,300.
“Because safety, health, and welfare concerns stemming from lodging houses have more to do with management than zoning issues, licensure is an effective regulatory device,” the Worcester Housing Courts wrote in that decision.
Wilson said the co-op has not even applied for the proper license. She said if her department inspected a property and determined it was not properly licensed, they would issue a seize and desist order, and possibly go to housing court.
Opperman said he does not plan to make any further changes to the Firehouse, or the co-op set-up. He and O’Hara indicated that neither had plans to change their living situation in the near future, and look forward to a show they will host this Friday.