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Spotlight: 2014

A tragic fire and the dangers of student apartments in America’s college town

With Boston-area colleges housing less than half of full-time undergraduates, too many packed into unsafe living conditions.

Boston University senior Binland Lee (right) died in a 2013 fire in an Allston building (left) that was riddled with code violations.fire photograph by NICK MOORE

Spotlight Team: Thomas Farragher (editor), Jenn Abelson, Casey Ross, Jonathan Saltzman, and Todd Wallack


In 2013, when Boston University senior Binland Lee died in a fire in her off-campus home, many saw an isolated tragedy. But as Spotlight editor Thomas Farragher and his team soon discovered, Lee’s death was part of a broader pattern, where young people like her were systematically subjected to unsafe housing in America’s college town.

Throughout Boston, students routinely packed into crumbling apartments despite zoning regulations that limited the number of full-time undergraduates living in one apartment to four. Landlords raked in cash at the expense of both young tenants and their priced-out neighbors. Meanwhile, colleges abdicated their responsibilities, housing less than half of their full-time undergraduate populations.

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Spotlight found that the city department tasked with keeping tenants safe, the Inspectional Services Department, was conducting a fraction of the inspections needed and lacked a system to track landlords and properties with repeat offenses. Some regulations went virtually unenforced: The city could not provide reporters with proof of even one overcrowding citation.

The Globe came up with a name for the dire, dangerous world that these structural problems had created: a shadow campus. “The point of ignition for that project was the fatal fire,” Farragher recalls. The first story in the 2014 series took readers room by room through the fire that cost Lee her life and injured several of the 12 others there that night in a building riddled with code violations.

The team also surveyed 266 students and interviewed dozens whose housing had threatened their health and safety. Reporters analyzed records showing higher rates of complaints and violations in neighborhoods like Allston with large student populations. They enlisted the help of student correspondents and a registered sanitarian to document violations firsthand. The result was an investigation that was as emotionally compelling as it was hard-hitting. “Shadow Campus” was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service.

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Before Lee’s death and Spotlight’s report, substandard housing had seemed “an accepted rite of passage,” as reporter Jenn Abelson puts it. “It was really eye-opening to a lot of people to have something that felt like an open secret just laid out . . . in such detail that it was hard to ignore anymore.”

Action following the report was swift. Less than two weeks after publication, Inspectional Services commissioner Bryan Glascock was moved to a different city agency. (Then-Mayor Marty Walsh denied that the change was related to Spotlight’s findings.) The transformation of that department would continue for years. “In the wake of the tragic fire, our Department immediately began to reassess our business practices,” current commissioner Sean Lydon explains in a statement provided to the Globe Magazine. Today, the Inspectional Services Department tracks repeat violations, and provides an online tool that lets renters look up a building’s record of violations and complaints.

Walsh began working with several colleges to increase the number of dorm beds by the year 2030 (the city is about halfway toward meeting its goal). And the Boston City Council passed an ordinance requiring schools to submit an annual, anonymized list detailing off-campus students’ addresses and units to make it easier to track overcrowding.

Former city councilor Josh Zakim, who helped propose the ordinance, says that neighborhood groups had long been advocating for improvements. But in 2014, a new element helped move the issue forward: public attention. “It’s really powerful to have those examples, and for people to see that there’s a need,” says Zakim, now executive director of Housing Forward-MA.

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It was a need that students had long recognized, and “Shadow Campus” centered their voices. Josh Goldenberg, whom the Spotlight Team interviewed, remembers how rare it was to feel heard as a student. In 2012, the year before Lee died in her attic bedroom, Goldenberg had jumped from an attic window to escape a fire. He suffered a weeks-long coma and life-altering injuries. But even as he recovered, he and his housemates faced a lawsuit for damage done to a neighbor’s house in the fire. Goldenberg saw the suit as “putting the blame on us, on the students, these young renters who savvy landlords can easily take advantage of.”

Goldenberg came to see what had happened to him as the fault of a failed system. Soon, other people did, too, thanks in large part to Spotlight’s investigation. “It got the word out about a real issue that was harming kids,” Goldenberg says. “And that’s good reporting.”


Dasia Moore is the Globe Magazine's staff writer. E-mail her at dasia.moore@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @daijmoore.