Boston Mayor Martin Walsh’s vow to crack down on substandard student housing takes guts in a city where “meds and eds” are the throbbing heart of the economy. The report by the Globe’s Spotlight team earlier this month gives him some good leverage. It detailed unspeakable, code-busting conditions in off-campus apartments, where students are crammed in to maximize profits for landlords who don’t maintain or even visit their properties, while universities charging vertiginous tuitions look the other way. After years of inertia, the city needs to use these revelations to pressure universities to keep better tabs on the 45,000 students living in Boston’s neighborhoods, and to bring more of them back on campus.
Of course Walsh is correct to be concerned mostly for “the life of every young college student living off campus in overcrowded apartments,” as he said in the wake of the Spotlight series. Binland Lee, a 22-year-old marine sciences major at Boston University, died last spring in a fire that ripped through an ostensibly two-family house on Linden Street in Allston, where 14 young people were jammed into spaces carved out of every corner of the building. But it was good to hear him recognize that derelict student housing is also “a quality of life issue for communities.” It doesn’t take much for a neighborhood of modest, closely packed homes to tip into a rowdy, slovenly bacchanal. I know, because I live in Brighton, where the ratio of homeowners to absentee landlords is a matter of constant vigilance. Without a responsive city government that can get ahead of deteriorating conditions in overcrowded rental units, any street could become Linden Street.
Brian Swett, the city’s chief of environment and energy who oversees the Inspectional Services Department, says the mayor is committed to inspecting some 100,000 apartments with absentee landlords, and not just in student districts, by the end of 2018. The first 1,500 notices went out last week; by the end of June those landlords need to arrange for a city inspection or prove they have passed a third-party review. The task is aided by a 2012 ordinance requiring all landlords to register their apartments and pay a $25 per-unit fee (the fee has since been waived for owner-occupied buildings). At first landlords balked, but Swett says 108,000 units have so far been registered.
The money will help pay for stepped-up enforcement, so the city can turn around a woefully inadequate system where inspections are only generated by complaints, if then. “The way the game was designed, the landlords were better at playing it,” said Swett. “They were better at the reactive game. Now we’ve changed the rules.”
This is all to the good. The social history of Boston has long been the story of residential neighborhoods fighting powerful institutions bent on expansion: New England Medical Center in Chinatown; the Massachusetts Port Authority in East Boston; Harvard, Northeastern, Boston University, and Boston College across a huge swath of the city. In 1978, community activist Richard Broadman produced the documentary “Mission Hill and the Miracle of Boston,” which depicted a close-knit neighborhood torn apart by institutional forces, from the Lahey Clinic to Harvard University to the Boston Housing Authority. Now the film is taught in urban studies programs. But the tensions between residents and their institutional neighbors remain.
The balance only holds if everyone takes responsibility — the city, neighbors, universities, and students.
During last year’s mayoral campaign we heard a lot about improving the quality of life in Boston by allowing bars to stay open past 2 a.m. and running the T into the wee hours. It’s true Boston isn’t the same city it was when I moved here (as a student, naturally) in the 1970s, when a Haymarket greasy spoon called Mondo’s was one of the few places to find a bite to eat after midnight. It is a better, smarter, more open, more international city, thanks largely to the vibrancy students provide. But the delicate balance only holds if everyone takes responsibility. The city needs to enforce its own housing code, neighbors need to support more on-campus dorm construction, universities need to reduce their relentless drive to enroll more students than they can reasonably house; the students need to be better citizens. When it comes to living in safety and harmony in this great city we share, everyone can use an education.