After developer Douglas R. George built a 24-unit luxury condominium building in South Boston, he christened it “The Vista” for its “jaw dropping views” of Boston’s skyline.
So when another developer pitched a project next door that threatened to block that golden vista, in stepped George’s wife, City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George.
Now a candidate for mayor, Essaibi George used her office to try to block the rival project, having a staffer in March 2019 urge the Zoning Board of Appeal to reject the proposal, according to video footage of the hearing. When Essaibi George’s office cited opposition of a civic association and spoke against the project, her staff never mentioned that her husband was in the process of selling $1 million condos next door to buyers paying a premium for the view.
Her office’s involvement, which appears to violate the state’s conflict of interest law, not only raises questions about the councilor’s actions, but also underscores the fraught entanglements between a leading mayoral candidate and her developer husband, with whom the city has long battled over his real estate practices.
George, who has been a landlord and developer for decades, has routinely flouted city and state housing and building laws, drawing the ire of luxury condo buyers who alleged fraud, low-income tenants he pushed to evict, and city inspectors and tax collectors who would work for his wife if she’s elected, a Globe investigation has found.
In a statement, Essaibi George’s campaign initially defended her role in the zoning hearing, saying that “this was not her husband’s project” and “her office acted appropriately in this case.” When pressed about the state conflict of interest law extending to neighboring properties, her campaign issued a second statement.
“Now that we are aware of this through your press inquiry, we have engaged with counsel on issues involving the Ethics Commission and are working to file any necessary disclosures,” Essaibi George’s campaign said in an e-mail.
But Douglas R. George’s entanglements at City Hall extend far beyond this one incident. Inspectors have filed at least four applications for criminal complaints in housing court against George or his companies, part of an effort to force them to address code violations. One involved unpermitted living space in a basement, another a rodent infestation, a third a ceiling leak; details of the fourth case could not be obtained. The cases have since been resolved and didn’t result in criminal charges.
Time and again, George has refuted the claims and ignored the city’s demands. It was only this January — two weeks before his wife launched her mayoral campaign — that George addressed 116 late payments for failing to register apartments over at least seven years, paying $5,315 in all, records show. Then in July, Boston sent him a stack of warning letters for failing to register another 14 units and renewing 20 others. In Boston, landlords are required to register their apartments each year, which includes a small fee for each unit.
“He’s a slumlord, plain and simple,” said former tenant James Higgins, whom George pushed to evict from a Hyde Park apartment in 2013 after health struggles and setbacks put him behind on rent.
At one point, Higgins fell through the building’s decrepit front porch, an issue Higgins said he had asked George to fix. City inspectors issued George a violation after the incident.
“He treated us like we were scum,” said Higgins’s wife, Kathleen. “We were poor. But we were not bad people.”
Essaibi George declined an interview request but her campaign said she and her staff recused themselves any time his specific projects have been up for approval.
“As a City Councilor for almost six years, she has been steadfast in her commitment to separate herself from her husband’s work,” the campaign said in an e-mail. “She will continue to ensure that separation and lead with transparency as Mayor. "
Essaibi George declined to answer questions about her husband’s businesses in Boston, which, under state law, is considered part of her own financial interests. If elected mayor, Essaibi George said, her husband would cease doing business that required the approval of city development or zoning officials.
Douglas R. George, who is featured on his wife’s campaign website and has helped in the past renovate homes in downtrodden neighborhoods, also declined an interview request and did not answer questions.
“I am proud of my work in Boston over the last 30 years,” George said in a statement. “I have always treated others fairly and with respect. With this inquiry, the Boston Globe does not.”
In the campaign to become Boston’s next leader, affordable housing, gentrification, and income inequality have been dominant issues in a city where the mayor has sweeping power over development.
At least two other top candidates also have ties to development-related businesses, including Acting Mayor Kim Janey, whose cousin founded the regional construction company Janey Construction. At-large City Councilor Michelle Wu’s husband works in commercial real estate at East Boston Savings Bank.
Records show another candidate, former economic development chief John Barros, was also sent warning letters this month for failing to renew or register two rental properties. The city also sent a warning letter to Wu for not registering the apartment where her mother lives rent-free, part of their two-family home.
But the Globe found that George’s track record makes him unique as his wife vies for mayor.
“This is a problem,” said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis whose areas of expertise include government and legal ethics. “When you elect someone, you’re electing the baggage they bring with them. That means the financial interests of their spouse.”
Her office’s public opposition to a development that would have infringed on George’s skyline views appears to run counter to state ethics law. State rules forbid public employees from involvement in anything that affects the financial interests of their spouse, a prohibition that extends to neighboring developments.
At the zoning board hearing, Essaibi George’s aide joined the staffers of two city councilors from South Boston — Ed Flynn and Michael Flaherty — to speak against the project. It is not unusual for city councilors to support or oppose developments, although they do not weigh in on each proposal.
Essaibi George’s aide, Karen Foley, referenced Cityside Neighborhood Association in her brief remarks, saying it had “sent us e-mails saying they weren’t involved in the process.”
Despite Essaibi George’s objection, the zoning board voted to approve the development, which had the support of the mayor’s office. A record of the vote included a handwritten note that the mayor’s office had been in favor and that Essaibi George and the other councilors had opposed.
George then sued the zoning board, noting twice in the complaint that three city councilors had opposed the neighboring project — without mentioning that one of the councilors was his wife.
But then George himself was sued. The condo association alleged shoddy construction. The buyers of three condos alleged in a separate suit that they had been misled about their skyline views.
George refuted the charges and that case ended in July 2020 after a confidential resolution, according to attorney Ryan C. Siden, who represented the condo buyers.
“They felt like they were sold a bag of goods,” said Siden, who added, “Sleazy is a word for it.”
In other instances, George’s business operations have intersected with his wife, who owns the popular Dorchester knitting store the Stitch House.
One of his companies — Stitch House Real Estate, LLC — bears a name similar to that of his wife’s store. And some of his work, including the filing of more than a dozen eviction cases in the last decade, seems to be at odds with his wife’s campaign pledges.
As an at-large city councilor, Essaibi George has pushed to combat homelessness and has promised as mayor to improve the Boston Housing Authority voucher system for needy families. As a landlord, Douglas R. George and his companies have gone to court to evict tenants whose rent is subsidized by the housing authority, records show.
In 2019, one of his companies went to housing court to evict two tenants. George had often been late paying city property taxes on one of those units, sometimes accruing small interest charges such as $26 in 2019. In another year, he was so late paying $1,300 on that unit that the city filed a notice preserving its right to seize land because of unpaid taxes.
It wasn’t a one-off. George is routinely late in paying property taxes, a lifeblood for municipal government that accounts for 75 percent of Boston’s revenue and pays his wife’s salary as a city councilor. Some of his late payments have accumulated small amounts of interest. Others have been late enough that the city pursued the issue in court.
In 2019, the city slapped one of George’s South Boston properties with an “instrument of taking,” reserving the right to seize the land because he was so late paying taxes, records show. The city assessor has fined him at least twice for failing to provide information to help officials determine the value of his properties.
The City of Worcester’s Inspectional Services Department filed eight housing court cases against George and one of his companies from 2013 to 2016 for failing to address code violations, records show. And a Boston tenant filed a civil lawsuit alleging her kitchen ceiling fell and injured her head, records show. Ultimately both sides agreed to drop the case.
More than a decade ago, George ignited a controversy in Dorchester when he constructed a six-unit condominium building at 96 Neponset Ave. During a final walk-through in 2008, city inspectors discovered that he had illegally extended two units into the basement, according to court records and inspection reports. The city ordered him to remove the illegal work, which he did before receiving a permit for occupancy.
After the inspectors left, court records allege, George rebuilt the living space and added a recreation room that was not built to code, nor did it have a permit. He marketed one unit as a duplex and touted the basement space as a full exercise area with a steam room and billiard room with a wet bar for “hanging out.”
George sold the two units, but after the basement flooded city inspectors again discovered the illegal living space and threatened criminal charges unless it was removed. One of the condo buyers declined to discuss the issue, citing a nondisclosure agreement that was part of a legal settlement.
The other buyer, a Boston police officer, said the matter was resolved in court and has not impacted his favorable view of Essaibi George’s candidacy for mayor. The officer, Garvin McHale, said he had not settled on a mayoral candidate, but heard Essaibi George speak at a candidate forum.
“She said some things that are pretty intriguing to me and pretty positive for the city of Boston,” McHale said.
Andrew Ryan can be reached at email@example.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan. Danny McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.