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Adrian Walker

A tall order for chief inspector

Both congratulations and condolences might be appropriate for William “Buddy” Christopher, Boston’s new czar of housing inspections.

Christopher was just named commissioner of the city’s Inspectional Services Department. His appointment comes in the wake of a hard-hitting Globe Spotlight Team series that detailed the awful conditions in thousands of rental units housing students across the city. They are a disgrace to a world-class city.

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And as the Spotlight report demonstrated, the conditions are not just often unsanitary bordering on subhuman — they can also be deadly. Boston University student Binland Lee was weeks from graduation last year when she died in a fire, trapped in a plainly illegal attic apartment. She was living in precisely the kinds of conditions building codes are meant to prevent.

Christopher’s appointment was just announced, but was not unexpected. He and many of his family members worked tirelessly for the election of their Tuttle Street neighbor and dear friend Marty Walsh as mayor. Not only that: As an architect and longtime official of both ISD and the Department of Neighborhood Development, Christopher is a highly credible choice for the job. By no means should this be construed as cronyism.

He will have his hands full. As the Globe series amply demonstrated in devastating detail, the city is completely overmatched in its efforts to guarantee safe housing, especially for the thousands of college students who live off campus.

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The reports that students are living in potentially deadly conditions have prompted the predictable series of meetings in City Hall. There is plenty to meet about.

The city doesn’t have nearly enough resources devoted to this issue. ISD — which handles a host of other issues, from granting building permits to ensuring accurate cab meters — probably needs twice the number of inspectors it has available. In some respects, the codes are weak. The penalties for violations, including serious ones, aren't severe enough to scare landlords into compliance.

In truth, the whole system was designed in and for a different era, as ISD’s antiquated reliance on paper records demonstrates. James Michael Curley would recognize almost everything about ISD.

Unfortunately, the problem the city is trying to police has grown dramatically over the past decade or so. The mom-and-pop landlords of lore have been replaced by speculators. Their properties command rents that once would have been considered obscene, and many of them plainly don’t worry one bit about the city or its building codes. Not to mention that the historic character of some fine neighborhoods has been trampled in the process.

Frankly, the scope of this problem doesn’t reflect well on the old Menino administration, whose officials must have known that this was a bad situation growing steadily worse.

Some obvious solutions have already been floated. Colleges and universities are going to have to take far greater responsibility for the living conditions of their students. Almost all of the city’s colleges need to build more dorms. Colleges are going to have to release the off-campus addresses of their students, so the city can ensure that they are living in safe conditions. There has to be a safe and sane way to do this.

But much of the onus for solving this problem is going to fall on Christopher’s antiquated agency. It may need to shed some of its less important tasks to focus on those that can mean the difference between life and death.

If Boston is going to point to its colleges and universities as evidence of our status as an intellectual capital, we can’t have thousands of students living in rat-infested dens, or hoping that their illegal basement apartment is never engulfed in smoke. Ensuring the safety of its citizens is as important as anything city government does.

So wish Mr. Christopher luck. The character of Boston may depend on his success.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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