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YVONNE ABRAHAM

Boston must act for students to end housing mess

Wow. So tens of thousands of parents send their children to Boston to be educated at our storied colleges and universities, blessing their decisions to live off-campus. Then some of those kids are preyed upon by unspeakable scofflaw property owners and brokers who lease places that are overcrowded pits at best and deadly firetraps at worst.

The universities, whose crazy-high dorm costs drive students into the arms of the bad actors are unaware of what’s going on, or pretend to be. And the city agency that is supposed to be the last line of defense of these students appears powerless to do anything about it.

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Welcome to Boston, kids! You’re on your own!

There are so many people to blame for the grimy economy uncovered by this week’s Globe Spotlight investigation into student housing. But the most infuriating part of the series, from where I sit, is the astonishing failure of the city agency tasked with rooting out the rank and dangerous living conditions to which kids are subjected, allowing landlords like Anwar Faisal to get richer by breaking the rules with impunity.

Bless the Inspectional Services Department. It’s like John Hynes is still mayor over there on Mass Ave. Their technology and staffing levels are straight out of the 1950s. This comes as no surprise to the legions of businesspeople and builders who have attempted to inch their way through this byzantine system over the years. But the mismatch between the department and its task when it comes to the city’s rental properties is a whole other level of scary.

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Inspectors are spread so thin, and their duties are so circumscribed by work rules, that they can only get to a fraction of the properties they’re supposed to be checking for rats and boarded-up exits. Last year, they conducted just 2,304 of the roughly 40,000 inspections they were supposed to do when rentals turned over.

Then there is what happens after inspectors do get inside a property. The department still relies on paper records, for Pete’s sake. There’s no easy way to tell how many times a property has been visited. They aren’t set up to track repeat offenders. They couldn’t tell Globe reporters the most basic things, like how often landlords have been cited.

Despite this throwbackiness, some miscreants, like property investor Anwar Faisal, are impossible to miss. Yet even here, inspectional services seems to have little meaningful power. They’ve cited him hundreds of times, yet he’s repeatedly escaped the consequences of his appalling actions.

The Inspectional Services Department should be able to throw the book at somebody like Faisal, who has been thumbing his nose at them for years. Or at least escalate fines for his repeat offenses until they put more than a pin-sized prick in a fortune built on the bug-bitten backs of kids with no other choices.

Yet the agency appears to have thrown up its hands.

The loss of Boston University senior Binland Lee, who died after fire engulfed her death trap of an overcrowded house on Linden Street in Allston last year, should have changed everything, as should the near-fatal fire on the very same street the year before. It should have made City Hall finally force inspectional services into this century.

The fact that Mayor Tom Menino, famed for his focus on nitty-gritty like this, didn’t do that is especially troubling. Was the agency so intractable that even the vaunted “urban mechanic” himself couldn’t budge it?

Wednesday, his successor Marty Walsh vowed to do what should have been done years ago: Force universities to share the off-campus addresses of students; up fines for landlords; push for more dorms and for tougher housing courts. All of that will help.

This being America, there will always be someone willing to bend the rules to make a buck. But what we’ve seen here is another version of a story that has played out all too often, especially in recent years. Government exists to protect citizens from those who have more money and power than they do, to step in when big guys work the system to take advantage of the little ones.

When it fails in that duty, the results, from Wall Street to Linden Street, are predictable — and disastrous.

More coverage:

Spotlight Day 1: House jammed with students, a life of promise lost

Spotlight Day 2: Overcrowded and at risk

Spotlight Day 3: A devastating mismatch — city vs. scofflaw landlords

Documentary: Shadow Campus

Globe Spotlight Investigation: Shadow Campus

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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