City sends letters to property owners targeting violations
Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Friday that the city of Boston has sent 1,500 letters to owners of rental properties that have had at least one serious code violation in the past year, informing them that their properties will be inspected shortly.
The properties are in the first wave of 154,000 rental units to be inspected by the city under a 2012 city ordinance designed to improve the quality of housing, but which has not been enforced to date. The initial focus will be on property owners with recent violations. The letter gives them 30 days to respond.
“This is the beginning of the inspections of the problem properties in the city,’’ Walsh told the Globe.
The mailing comes just weeks after Walsh told the Globe he would move swiftly against scofflaw property owners and landlords.
The mayor was responding to a Globe Spotlight Team series that found that city regulators inspect only a small fraction of rental units and have made only token efforts to control the rampant overcrowding of apartments in neighborhoods where students by the thousands seek off-campus housing.
Students are commonly crammed into illegal and sometimes unsafe apartments; sanitary code violations are rife.
Walsh also recently replaced the chief of the Inspectional Services Department, which enforces housing codes, but said the move was not in response to the Globe report.
The mayor first disclosed the mailings to property owners Friday afternoon on “Boston Public Radio,” a program on WGBH-FM radio.
“We’re asking absentee homeowners to keep your property up,’’ he said on the program. “If not, we’re coming to get you.’’
Walsh also told the Globe he intends to hold a group meeting with representatives of the colleges in Boston within the next couple of weeks to demand that they disclose the addresses of undergraduate students living off campus.
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 colleges to share the addresses of their off-campus students so city officials could build a database and detect overcrowded units. BU was the only university to comply with the request; other schools demurred, citing student privacy.
“Now is the time to get those addresses from the colleges so they can properly target and identify problem properties before they move in,” said Valerie K. Frias, associate director of the Allston Brighton Community Development Corp., who has been pushing for the database since Lee’s death.
Walsh — who emphasized that the city is cracking down on problem properties outside college neighborhoods, as well as those near campuses — said that ideally colleges would house 100 percent of their students on campus. But he said some colleges lack sufficient land to build dorms and he hoped they could work with private developers to build more campus housing.
“I think some colleges are over-enrolling,’’ he told WGBH. “This is a serious issue. It’s not just a serious issue in the sense of somebody losing their life. It’s a quality of life issue for communities. If you go to Mission Hill . . . from the month of September through May they want to leave because their neighborhoods are just overrun with college parties.”
Meanwhile, a City Council committee will convene a hearing Tuesday about a controversial business relationship between one of Boston’s most notorious landlords and Northeastern University, which has paid the property owner millions to house its students. The business ties between the two were detailed in the Spotlight report.
The hearing’s focus is on Anwar N. Faisal, a major landlord who caters to college students. Among those expected to testify is Thomas Jackson, a 2012 Northeastern graduate, who said he knows first hand what it’s like to live under Faisal’s roof, and is incredulous that Northeastern would do business with him.
Jackson says he spent four miserable weeks in a dingy, rodent-infested apartment on St. Stephen Street that was owned by Faisal and leased by Northeastern in September 2008 before he implored the school to move him to another building.
On move-in day, Jackson and his father found rodent poison sprinkled on the backsplash of the stove, loose handrails on the stairs, and a fire exit in the unit painted shut.
“Northeastern has to be held accountable for this partnership they’ve entered into,’’ said Jackson, 25. “They can’t put all of this on the shoulders of Alpha.’’
Ultimately, Jackson persuaded Northeastern to move him to a university-owned residence hall across the street. But the college’s ties to Faisal troubles him.
Northeastern students were “paying a lot of money to go there, and to see it go into the pocket’’ of Faisal raised serious questions about the school’s priorities, he said.
Faisal is one of the most complained-about landlords who cater to students in Boston, the Globe found. Over the past decade, he and his companies have been defendants in at least 22 lawsuits and 11 criminal complaints in Boston Housing Court, according to court and city records. In the same period, he has received 469 code enforcement tickets totaling $51,720 for violations outside his buildings, but paid only $3,010 in fines. He has been the subject of 16 complaints by tenants with the state attorney general’s office since 2008, and the city has condemned at least two of his apartments on St. Stephen Street in recent years.
Councilor Josh Zakim called for the hearing because he said he was appalled that “one of our largest institutions of higher education was in business on a fairly large scale with Anwar Faisal and Alpha Management despite their deplorable history.’’
He said he wants to know the terms of the leasing agreement and why Northeastern maintains the partnership.
The council has invited Faisal, Northeastern, and Inspectional Services to testify at the hearing. Faisal’s lawyer, Robert L. Allen Jr., did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Northeastern has said that as a result of the Spotlight Team report, it is reviewing how Faisal manages his buildings. In a letter to Faisal, the school threatened to end its business relationship with him and to stop referring Northeastern students to rent apartments from him, if it is unsatisfied with the quality of his housing.
The university will be represented at the hearing by John Tobin, vice president of city and community affairs and a former city councilor. Tobin told the Globe earlier this year that problems with the way Faisal treated Northeastern students had “never been brought to my attention.’’
The number of undergraduate and graduate students living off campus in the city soared 36 percent, to more than 45,000 from 2006 to 2013, according to reports filed with the city and data collected from three public colleges.
Northeastern houses only 47 percent of its 15,941 undergraduates on campus, says a housing report last year commissioned by the school. It leased units in privately owned buildings in the fall for about 600 students, more than half of them in Faisal’s dozen buildings on St. Stephen and Hemenway Streets and Huntington Avenue, said Michael Armini, Northeastern’s senior vice president for external affairs.
Northeastern considers those units university housing and charges students as if they lived in a dorm. The school assigns resident assistants to supervise them and oversees upkeep, making and paying for repairs when necessary.
At the same time, other college students, many of them from Northeastern, rent apartments directly from Faisal in the same buildings and often endure worse conditions than those who live in apartments leased by the university.
Nonetheless, students in both types of apartments have criticized conditions. Matt Soleyn, who graduated from Northeastern in 2010, said he served on the executive board of the Northeastern University Resident Student Association for several years. He heard many complaints about conditions in units the school had leased from Alpha.
“When you went into leased buildings, you could see that things like cabinets were older than what you would expect in a university-owned building,’’ he said. “The level of general cleanliness was lower. In Northeastern buildings, janitorial staff every day is doing vacuuming, mopping, removing trash. That didn’t happen in those buildings.’’
Soleyn said he and other association members conveyed concerns about the conditions in university-leased apartments to Northeastern officials.
“The conversation always came down to the university administration saying, ‘We are aware people are dissatisfied, and we are planning in the next two to three years to phase all that out,’ ’’ recalled Soleyn, now an information technology project manager in Boston.
Northeastern has leased private property for student housing in the Fenway since the early 1980s, according to Armini. The school promised the city in 2004 to phase out such leases within five years and build more dorms but has not come close to keeping its promise.
As part of the 2004 agreement, Northeastern also promised to occupy no more than half the units of any building it leased for students. But records of properties registered with the Inspectional Services Department under a new zoning ordinance indicate that Northeastern last fall leased more than half the units in two buildings, 311 Huntington Ave. and 115 St. Stephen St.