Walsh vows off-campus student housing crackdown
More inspections, daily $300 fines on landlords
Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Wednesday that the city will levy $300 daily fines on scofflaw landlords, increase the number of inspections, and demand that colleges in Boston disclose the addresses of undergraduate students living off campus, measures designed to protect the health and safety of tens of thousands of university students.
“My concern is the life of every young college student living off campus in overcrowded apartments,’’ Walsh said.
The mayor’s announcement follows this week’s Globe Spotlight Team investigation that reported that illegally overcrowded apartments riddle the city’s college neighborhoods, where some absentee landlords maximize profits by packing in students who often seek apartments off campus because universities admit more students than they can house.
Meanwhile, Northeastern University said Wednesday that it may sever its relationship with one of Boston’s most notorious landlords, who has received millions from the school over the past decade to house its students in a dozen buildings near the campus. The university’s ties to the landlord were a focus of the Spotlight report.
Walsh, responding to the report’s findings about landlords who repeatedly violate city and state regulations but receive kid-glove treatment from regulators and the courts, pledged to crack down and fine property owners $300 a day for each violation.
The city already has the power to impose such fines, but rarely does so.
Walsh said in a phone interview: “We absolutely have to be tougher.’’
The mayor also plans to hire more inspectors to regularly check the city’s 154,000 rental units for potential code violations. The Globe series uncovered widespread problems in Allston, Brighton, Fenway, and Mission Hill, where students were living with a host of indignities and hazards, from rodent and pest infestations, to doors without working locks, to missing smoke detectors, and bedrooms crammed illegally into basements or firetrap attics.
The city had already earmarked money to pay for five additional inspectors to carry out a new inspection regimen. But Walsh said that is not enough and that he will hire more. But he did not have specifics on how many or when.
The mayor also said he intends to meet soon with representatives of all the colleges in Boston to insist that they turn over addresses of undergraduates living off campus, review university expansion plans, and make schools live up to promises to move students out of the neighborhoods and onto campus.
Northeastern University, for example, signed an agreement with the city in 2004 to end, within five years, its practice of leasing apartments for students in privately owned buildings in the Fenway area.
But Northeastern, which houses only 47 percent of undergraduates on campus, continues to rent apartments for 600 students. More than half of them live in buildings owned by one of the city’s most infamous landlords, Anwar N. Faisal.
“If you make a commitment to do something as a college or a university, you should live up to that,’’ said Walsh, who called the Globe Wednesday to detail his plan to protect students.
Northeastern said Wednesday that it is reconsidering its business relationship with Faisal, one of the biggest landlords for college students in Boston. The Spotlight Team found that Faisal and his real estate companies, including Alpha Management Corp., have been defendants in dozens of criminal and civil cases in Boston Housing Court over the past decade.
The Spotlight Team, as part of its investigation, recently surveyed students living in 40 apartments in six Faisal buildings on Hemenway and St. Stephen streets. The occupants of 37 of those apartments, or 93 percent, reported at least one significant problem, such as pests, mold, inoperable smoke alarms, and broken locks on apartment doors.
“The leadership of Northeastern University is extremely concerned about revelations uncovered by The Boston Globe’s recent investigative series on student housing in Boston,’’ Steven Kadish, senior vice president and chief operating officer for the school, wrote in a letter to Faisal Wednesday.
“The multiple and specific examples of abhorrent living conditions in your company’s apartments are very troubling and, if substantiated, warrant your immediate attention and response.’’
Kadish wrote that Northeastern intends to carefully study the Globe’s findings. “If, after a thorough review of the facts, we are not satisfied with the quality of student housing your company provides, Northeastern will conclude its master leasing arrangement with Alpha Management and discourage our students from independently renting apartments from Alpha Management,’’ he wrote.
Michael Armini, Northeastern’s senior vice president for external affairs, said the school will carry out its review over the summer and into the fall. Armini said Northeastern, which bankrolled renovations in units it leased from Faisal, had focused on these units, rather than apartments that students rent directly from the landlord in the same buildings.
“Certainly, the revelations of the last few days have heightened our interest in all of Alpha Management’s properties,’’ he said.
Faisal could not be reached Wednesday afternoon. A woman who answered the phone at Faisal’s Brookline office said Alpha had no comment about the letter Northeastern sent.
Ethan Arruda-Leuppert, who graduated from Northeastern in 2012 and rented directly from Alpha during his senior year, said he was surprised that his alma mater would do business with Faisal. He said the university should terminate its relationship with him.
“It was miserable,” Arruda-Leuppert, 23, said of his time living at 311 Huntington Ave., where he said Alpha Management failed to respond to widespread problems including broken doors, a nonfunctioning stove, oppressive heat, and rodents.
On Wednesday, Walsh said that when he meets with representatives of colleges, he will insist that they provide the addresses of students living off campus. That will help the city to more readily detect cases of overcrowding, defined by a zoning rule as more than four full-time undergraduates sharing a single apartment or house. If the colleges do not comply, Walsh said, he will take additional steps.
“If the colleges refuse to do it, I’m looking possibly to take legislative action to make it happen’’ through a city ordinance, he said. “I have that ability.’’
The series found that some landlords in college neighborhoods commonly flout the no-more-than-four zoning rule. Student tenants are often complicit because they cannot afford the rent without sharing it with a larger group.
Spotlight reporters and correspondents visited block after block of apartments in college neighborhoods and found overcrowding rife. In a Globe survey of 266 students living off campus in Boston, nearly a third of respondents said at least five undergraduates were living together, in apparent violation of the 2008 city zoning rule.
In sections of Brighton near Boston College, where most juniors are not provided on-campus housing, 80 percent of the students surveyed said they had more than four undergraduates in their apartments.
The overcrowded student apartments inflate rents in neighborhoods, make housing unaffordable to other residents, and can endanger tenants.
In April 2013, after a 22-year-old BU student, Binland Lee, died in a fire in an overcrowded house on Linden Street in Allston, the Boston Redevelopment Agency asked universities to share the addresses of their off-campus students so city officials could build a database and spot overcrowded units.
BU was the only school to comply with the request. BC said federal student privacy laws precluded that school from complying, even though federal regulators say schools who designate addresses as directory information are generally permitted to do so. Northeastern said Wednesday that the school’s legal counsel will review the matter.
Residents in neighborhoods chronically plagued by rowdy parties and the antics of students in overcrowded units stepped up their demands this week for the city to get the off-campus addresses.
“I expect full and immediate compliance with the city of Boston’s request for that data so that the proper agencies may have the information necessary to monitor and act to keep our children and our neighborhoods safe,’’ Steven Lee wrote in a letter to the Rev. William P. Leahy, BC’s president. Lee lives on Radnor Road near the BC campus.
Valerie K. Frias, the associate director of the Allston Brighton Community Development Center, who has been pushing for the database since Binland Lee’s death, said the universities’ assertions that student privacy is at risk is an easily surmountable obstacle. The city only needs the addresses, not the names of students, so they can target units that are housing more than four full-time undergraduates, she said.
The Globe reported Monday that the city could not turn up even one student overcrowding citation, even though crammed student apartments are an open secret. Even after the fire, the house where Binland Lee died was not cited.
As part of its report, the Globe published four photographs, listing the owners of four rental houses where more than four students were living late last year, apparently illegally. The city said late yesterday that it was dispatching inspectors to those houses Thursday.
“ISD will be out there tomorrow,’’ said Kate Norton, a spokeswoman for the mayor.
Asked whether the leader of the Inspectional Services Department, Bryan Glascock, had Walsh’s confidence, Norton said, “This is less an issue of leadership. This is more an issue of making sure the city has more tools at its disposal to ensure the safety of all its residents.’’
Michael P. Ross, the former councilor who successfully argued for the ordinance combating overcrowding called on city officials and universities to do more to safeguard students.