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Boston rental unit inspection plan debated

A proposed ordinance that would require most rental properties in Boston to be inspected once every three years was met with mixed reactions Thursday as city councilors, landlords, and tenants butted heads on whether more inspection requirements would place an unfair burden on responsible landlords.

Discussion of the proposal by the City Council was prompted by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who earlier this month called for a change to the city’s current law after a slew of high-profile citations were issued against apartments around the city.

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In a meeting at City Hall that lasted nearly three hours, city councilors and representatives of tenant and landlord associations bandied ideas on how to target absentee landlords, many of whom live out of state.

Menino’s proposal would require landlords to obtain an inspection once every three years, though property owners with a good track record could apply to opt out. Owner-occupied properties with one to three units would automatically be exempt from the more frequent inspections.

Under current law, rental properties need to be inspected only when units are turned over to new tenants, but landlords rarely notify the city when new tenants move in.

The proposal would also create a database of contact information for all rental property owners, so landlords are easily accessible when problems are identified.

“We’re really going to be able to go after some of these midsized investors that don’t care about Boston, don’t care about the neighborhood, but are now buying a lot of properties,” said Sheila Dillon, director of Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development.

But many were wary of establishing new rules, saying that they would create undue hardship for responsible property owners. Fees for inspections are $50 per unit for buildings with one to three units, and $75 per unit for buildings with four or more apartments.

Michael Ferguson, facilities director for Peabody Properties, a real estate firm, argued that the ordinance would not be fair to companies like his, which have 24-hour maintenance staff and conduct their own inspections each year.

“We are transparent, compliant, and accountable on a daily basis to our tenants,” Ferguson said.

Councilor Mark Ciommo pushed for the exemption to be extended to properties with up to six units.

Councilor Michael P. Ross said he recognized the need for more accountability but hoped for something “very liberal, very exempting.”

“I don’t think we need a system that punishes the entire real estate industry for the bad apples,” Ross said. “I think we need a system that goes after the bad apples.”

Ninety-eight percent of inspections performed by the Inspectional Services Department on rental properties are prompted by complaints, usually from tenants or neighbors, according to the department.

Brian Swett, chief of the Office of Environmental and Energy Services, said the city needs a more proactive system that identifies small code violations before they become larger health and safety hazards.

Several councilors were skeptical that the Inspectional Services Department would be able to handle the increased workload. Inspection officials projected that they would have to conduct 50 percent more inspections per year, requiring 12 additional employees.

Bryan Glascock, acting commissioner of the Inspectional Services Department, said the fees would just about exactly cover the costs of the additional inspectors. Councilor Tito Jackson was not convinced.

“It’s a big deal when you come before the council and you’re asking for 50 percent more employees within the department,” Jackson said.

The most enthusiastic supporter of the proposal was Councilor Felix G. Arroyo, who said bolstering inspection requirements would help guarantee that all Boston residents live in healthy conditions.

“You would start with what we believe are the worst of the worst,” Arroyo said. “The ones that I’m calling you all the time about, the ones who have toilets in their front yard, or partying at all hours of the night — I want you to go there first.”

Glascock said the proposed ordinance would also help protect immigrants, who often do not speak the same language as their landlords and fear that they will not be able to find another place to live if they complain.

Swett said the proposed ordinance would help cut down on landlords packing their apartments with students, violating city law that no more than four undergraduates can live in an apartment.

Representatives from health organizations said the requirement would help ensure that homes are safe, especially for children suffering from asthma.

Kathy Brown, coordinator of the Boston Tenant Coalition, said an inspection once every three years was not too much to ask from landlords who conduct business in Boston.

“There is a very significant problem of unsafe and unhealthy housing in the city,” Brown said. “This would put the responsibility on the landlord to make sure that the apartment is safe.”

City councilors will hold a working session within the next two weeks to iron out the details of the proposed ordinance. Members of the public are allowed to participate in this session and contribute ideas.

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.
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