Unhealthy housing conditions that can trigger asthma are more commonplace in Boston’s poorer and more diverse neighborhoods, and the city is slower to address such problems, if at all, in those enclaves than in whiter areas, according to a striking new research paper.
Analyzing a decade’s worth of complaints to City Hall about mold, pest infestations, and other housing problems from tenants in Boston, the recent paper in the peer-reviewed journal Health Affairs, found the city government’s responses were “significantly slower, more frequently overdue, and less likely to result in a repair, in both racially diverse and low-income neighborhoods of Boston.”
The median wait time for tenants in the most diverse neighborhoods to have their complaints closed was 3½ days longer than for tenants in the whitest neighborhoods, according to the research.
Put even more plainly, one researcher said in an interview last week the poor response reflects institutional racism in Boston.
Adam Haber, an author of the research paper, said the study adds to the body of evidence that the working class and people of color are exposed to higher risks for respiratory disease, particularly allergens in the home. The data, he said, also show the city is not responding equally to reports of unhealthy housing conditions across the city. The urgency — or lack thereof — of city response to the complaints is directly connected to the quality of housing conditions in Boston neighborhoods, he said.
“It’s clear from our study the city needs to do more to protect rights of tenants to live in a healthy home,” said Haber, an environmental policy professor at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Haber added the findings show that structural racism is very much present in Boston, a city with a lengthy, well-documented history of discrimination and segregation that is in the midst of a full-blown housing crisis. The neighborhoods with the highest asthma rates — Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan — were subjected to redlining, or mortgage discrimination, for decades and have more dilapidated homes as a result of that, he said.
“This legacy of institutional racism is still driving health outcomes,” he said. “The regulatory system isn’t doing enough to correct them.”
Asthma, which causes breathing difficulties, is a common ailment among the nation’s youth. There are about 1.8 million asthma-related emergency room visits in the United States each year.
It is also among the health conditions that most disproportionately affect people of color. Black and Hispanic communities experience not only a higher incidence of asthma but also more severe illness and complications linked to the disease, when compared to white communities, according to experts.
Poor housing conditions that can trigger asthma include mold, vermin, and bad ventilation systems; better housing conditions lead to better “respiratory outcomes,” according to experts.
For their new paper in the health policy journal, researchers examined 67,000-plus Boston tenant complaints in the 10-year period between 2011 and 2021. Nearly 26,000 of the reports met the criteria to be potential asthma triggers; the researchers overlaid those reports onto maps of the city.
The results showed the areas with the highest density of reported asthma triggers were Boston’s most diverse neighborhoods. The researchers caution that the findings likely underestimate the scope of the problem, “as marginalized communities can be reluctant to report even when conditions are dangerous.”
In Boston, authorities lean heavily on report-based inspection systems to cite landlords who don’t comply with housing codes.
The researchers then found patterns in response times to the reports of potential asthma triggers. Essentially, the whiter the neighborhood, the quicker the city would typically respond to a complaint.
Those in the most diverse neighborhoods also had a 14 percent higher probability of their complaints being flagged as overdue and a 54 percent lower probability of a repair.
Lydia Edwards, a city councilor who has made housing a focus of her time on that legislative body, called the study’s findings disappointing.
“We should vigorously pursue these complaints and protect our most vulnerable populations,” said Edwards, who is also currently serving as a state senator.
Greg Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, said any city-run program relating to housing should be fair and responsive. He questioned whether the city’s Inspectional Services Department, or ISD, was receiving enough resources to perform the necessary work. Regarding landlords, “some of them are real responsive, others don’t put in the effort,” he said.
“Sure, there’s always room for improvement,” said Vasil.
Mayor Michelle Wu’s office said in a statement Friday the city “is committed to continuously building quality programs to ensure a healthy environment for all of our residents.”
“This is one of the reasons the City is transparent and shares public health and inspection data that allows us to track our progress,” read the statement. “We will closely analyze and review the report and City data as we continue to strive towards equitable health outcomes.”
Boston has made concerted attempts to improve housing conditions in recent years. In 2013, for instance, the city passed a proactive rental inspection ordinance that requires all privately-owned residential buildings that have at least six units to register with the city and undergo an inspection once every five years.
But researchers suggest the city needs to strengthen such systems in order to better protect the health of tenants. Haber said ISD should be provided with more resources “to make sure they’re not stretched too thin,” and that penalties be bolstered for landlords in order to reduce the risk of code violations going unresolved.
Researchers specifically noted that there was no change in the rate of problems being reported since the 2013 ordinance came into effect, which to them suggests housing conditions on a whole have not improved. They note that the five-year inspection interval is among the lowest frequency of inspections of any US city with such a program.
In the new paper, the researchers also recommend Boston allow tenants to withhold rent from a landlord if violations found by the inspection program are not fixed in a timely manner. Preventing landlords from executing evictions if they have not registered with the city is another potential measure Boston should consider, researchers said in their recent paper.
Steve Meacham, an organizing coordinator at City Life/Vida Urbana, a Boston-based tenants rights advocacy group, agreed with Haber that the researchers’ findings show institutional racism persists in the city.
“Regardless of the motives, what’s resulting is a housing system that’s highly racialized,” he said.
Meacham said his organization hears anecdotes of inspectors failing to follow-up after an initial inspection. He said tenants are sometimes hesitant to report a problem such as a pest infestation because they are afraid city authorities may cite them for other violations, such as an illegal extra bedroom or overcrowding. Others are worried that if they complain and things are fixed, their rent may go up.
Meacham said rent stabilization, sometimes called rent control, is a key component that should dovetail with any solutions to the way the city responds to complaints of asthma triggers.
“The city has to do better on code enforcement and protection from the repercussions that the market would bring as a result of that,” he said.