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If problem buildings fester, landlords deserve a bill

Landlords have a key role to play in maintaining a livable city. And in extreme cases, the threat of a sharp blow to the pocketbook may be needed to concentrate some landlords’ attention on the problems that tenants involved in criminal activities are causing their neighbors.

The Menino administration is turning up the pressure on an absentee landlord whose Dorchester property has been the site of multiple drug deals and trouble calls, including a stabbing. Landlord Wendy Rist now faces a $24,000 bill to offset the cost of posting police officers outside her multi-unit Bakersfield Street building.

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While this tactic should be rare, it belongs in City Hall’s arsenal. The city’s Problem Properties Task Force, which formed last year, takes the sensible position that a few trouble spots can drag entire neighborhoods down. City officials try to work with landlords to correct building code violations and rein in unruly tenants. In one case in Brighton, the city responded to multiple police calls by linking a disruptive tenant with social services.

Rist’s property, which includes several units set aside for the operation of a so-called sober house, made the city’s list of the 18 “worst problem properties’’ in Boston. She installed security cameras over the summer in an attempt to reduce crime. But the lawlessness continued, and police suspect that crimes in surrounding properties, including housebreaks, emanate from Rist’s building.

Usually the city can reach an agreement with landlords about how to deal with a troubled property without the need for around-the-clock police presence. In this case, however, nothing short of posting officers at the curbside for 45 days during the fall seemed to make a difference.

Landlords often say — with justification — that it takes too long to evict tenants for nuisance crimes such as excessive noise and underage drinking. But housing courts are generally responsive to landlords seeking expedited evictions of tenants who commit serious crimes. Evictions at the Bakersfield Street property didn’t come soon enough. While the city should work with landlords to identify and evict problem tenants, better screening of tenants to begin with could have avoided much of this mess.

Rist is appealing the bill. Her attorney, Robert Russo, said that the city is exceeding its authority by billing a landlord for what amounts to general surveillance. That’s for an appeals board or court to decide. But overall, Boston officials need to involve owners in cleaning up problem properties — and have the option of sending bills to those who do too little, too late.

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