Operating a dormitory with possible structural issues and no valid license
John Tlumacki/Globe staff/file 2013
One of Boston’s most notorious landlords is housing international high school students in a building for which he does not have a proper license and whose facade Boston University considered structurally unsound when it sold the property to him in 2006.
Anwar N. Faisal, who largely caters to student tenants in Boston and was among the subjects of a Globe Spotlight Team investigation last month, has been operating a dormitory on Commonwealth Avenue in Allston with a license intended for the New England Institute of Art.
The art school, however, moved its students out in August 2013. In the meantime, Faisal has been leasing rooms to CATS Academy Boston, a private preparatory school, and also renting units in the building to other tenants in violation of city regulations.
BU decided to sell the seven-story dorm in part because the facade was separating from the building — a very costly repair — and it was in the midst of building the well-appointed, high-rise Student Village II housing complex, according to current and former university officials. The New England Institute of Art moved in after Faisal bought the Packard’s Corner property for $8 million and its 2012 dormitory license is still posted in the lobby.
Licensing rules require dormitory licenses to be renewed annually; each license is for a specific educational institution; and rooms in the dormitory are not to be rented to members of the public or students from other educational institutions except with special permission, according to officials from the city’s Licensing Board.
CATS Academy, which is run by the United Kingdom-based Cambridge Education Group, said it is unaware of any licensing problems at 1110 Commonwealth Ave., where several dozen students from around the world reside on two floors. The international school hired consultants to inspect the building after the Spotlight Team report detailed squalid conditions at many of Faisal’s apartments around Boston.
“These students, who are scheduled to move out this weekend, will not move back in until our consultants complete a full assessment of the premises and are certain that the property is fully compliant with applicable laws,” Nancy J. Sterling, a spokeswoman for CATS Academy, said on Thursday.
Faisal also failed to disclose, as required, a prior criminal conviction when he did finally seek a city license last week allowing CATS, which stands for the College for Arts Technology and Science, to occupy the building.
Robert L. Allen Jr., a lawyer representing Faisal, wrote in an e-mail to the Globe on Friday that he believes all necessary inspection certificates for the building, known as Nora’s House, have been obtained from the required city and state agencies without any issues.
“Unfortunately, you are making certain assumptions that are inaccurate, but you can be assured that Nora House has and will continue to work with all regulatory agencies and comply with all State and Local regulations to ensure the safety of its occupants,” Allen wrote.
Since Faisal purchased the building, he has made internal renovations to the individual units, installed an alarm system, upgraded the electricity, and made “minor masonry repair to . . . outside wall,” according to building permits pulled for the property since 2006.
Those permits sanctioned work to remove temporary partitions, ceiling tiles, and a non-load bearing wall.
But the records reviewed by the Globe do not indicate structural repairs to the building, which Faisal renamed Nora’s House after one of his children. Lisa Timberlake, a spokeswoman for the city’s Inspectional Services Department, said there is no application on file for such work.
Boston University hired an engineering firm when it was evaluating the future of the dorm, known then as the Hamilton House, and these reports documented serious structural issues with the facade. The college declined to share the engineering reports, saying they were proprietary.
“The building was in desperate need of repair on the outside and in order to do that, it cost a lot of money,” said Marc Robillard, BU’s executive director for auxiliary services.
Joseph Mercurio, the former executive vice president at Boston University who oversaw the dorm operations when 1110 Commonwealth Ave. was sold in 2006 and was briefed on the engineering reports, said, “It was my understanding that the building facade, that is the exterior walls, were separating from the main building structure and could fall off of the building if not structurally corrected.”
The current building now appears to have metal plates protuding on the exterior that seem to be bolted in place from the inside and a vertical corner bracket affixed to the building.
Mercurio said he is not an engineering expert, but that personally he does not believe the metal plates and bracket are the permanent or preferred solution because whatever the underlying cause of this condition might be, a corner bracket and some metal plates — visible from the outside of the structure — are unlikely to cure the cause of the problem.
“I was told you really would have to replace the whole facade to make it right,” said Mercurio, who now works as vice president for administration and finance at Quincy College.
Harold Brown, who owned the building until he sold it to BU in the 1970s and lost out to Faisal in a bid to repurchase it eight years ago, said his staff reviewed the engineering studies that detailed the problems.
“There were a lot of structural repairs that needed to be made to the building,” said Brown, who added that seven of the eight interested buyers offered about $3 million for the property and Faisal outbid them with an $8 million offer. “We thought he was crazy.”
Brown, who had originally built Hamilton House and who pleaded guilty in 1986 to bribing a city official for a building permit, estimated it would have cost at least $1.5 million to rehabilitate the property.
“There was a question about the structural integrity of the facade,’’ he said. “The heating and cooling system needed to be upgraded badly. There was a question about whether the egress in some rooms were legal. The elevator had to be upgraded and needed new machinery.”
In April 2012, the city cited Faisal for an unsafe structure because a brick wall at the rear of the building was in disrepair and crumbling. At the time, inspectional services ordered Faisal to repair the bricks and to supply an engineer’s report on the facade to comply with a city ordinance.
In April 2013, Faisal submitted a report from a structural engineer, Nalin Mistry, who stated 1110 Commonwealth Ave. was structurally sound based on his viewing of the property from the ground with binoculars, according to records filed with inspectional services.
CATS Academy said it is enlisting structural engineers to help it evaluate the building. International students at the school, which opened in Newton in 2012, pay $33,600 per year in tuition and $20,000 per year for accommodation, according to 2014-2015 rates posted online.
In March 2014, inspectional services issued a certificate of inspection for a dormitory for the New England Institute of Art that documented safety mechanisms were in place, including egress, lighting, and fire alarms. But these inspections do not evaluate structural issues, such as the facade, according to the agency. Faisal later renewed the dormitory license for the art institute with the Licensing Board for the City of Boston.
After the Globe contacted CATS Academy and the New England Institute of Art about the structural concerns and the dormitory license issues, Faisal on Wednesday filled out an application for a license for CATS Academy.
“Student safety and care is a top priority and we elected to consolidate our student housing to Pine Manor College,” said Chris Hardman, vice president of communications for Education Management Corporation, which runs the for-profit New England Institute of Art. “We have no affiliation with Mr. Faisal and were not aware that he was still filing documentation representing us as a tenant. We have alerted the Licensing Board for the City of Boston that we are no longer a tenant.”
Faisal, who was sentenced to 10 months of probation in 1995 after pleading guilty to four counts of making false statements to a federally insured bank, did not disclose the felonies on the application. He left the application section blank that stated “I have no record of criminal convictions in any State or Federal Court except those as listed below.”
The document was signed under “the pains and penalties of perjury.’’ The application states that any untrue statements shall be cause for the license’s cancellation or revocation or both.
The Licensing Board for the City of Boston said the agency would review the application on Thursday and declined to discuss the matter further because it is pending.
Over the past decade, Faisal and his companies have been defendants in at least 22 lawsuits and 11 criminal complaints at 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, including overloaded dumpsters, but he paid only $3,010 in fines.
During the Spotlight Team investigation, current and former tenants detailed the health and safety hazards they endured in his many buildings: rats scurried through bedrooms; bedbugs left red welts on arms and legs; radiators pumped temperatures to uncomfortable extremes of hot and cold.
CATS Academy is not the only educational institution with business ties to Faisal. Over the past decade, Northeastern University has paid millions of dollars to Faisal to house its students near the campus. Those buildings near the Fenway are not licensed as dormitories and Faisal rents some apartments to Northeastern and others directly to students, many of whom also attend Northeastern.
The university is now reexamining its relationship with Faisal.
The dormitory license for Nora’s House at 1110 Commonwealth Ave. does not allow students of multiple institutions to reside together. But it is apparent that Faisal is doing just that.
Lina Soto, a BU student, told the Globe she is subletting for the summer an apartment at Nora’s House.
“I wouldn’t live here long term,” Soto said. “The building is not that nice.”
And in a $2.3 million lease agreement with CATS Academy that Faisal attached to his application with the Board of Licensing, it appears the arrangement to lease rooms out to members of the public is formalized: “Nora’s House LLC and its agent Alpha Management shall assist CATS Academy in subleasing any excess inventory of units or entire floors that CATS may not need to utilize for each semester or summer session. It is agreed that any rent monies paid by outside tenants shall be to the benefit of CATS Academy.”
Marion Gottschalk, who works for an exchange programs agency in Brazil that helps place students at CATS Academy, said she was surprised to hear about the dorm issues and hopes CATS will resolve them by the fall.
“I pity them for facing such a problem, but I am sure they will sort it out. Today is the last day of classes so they have the summer holidays for finding a solution,” Gottschalk said on Friday.
Four graduating students of the academy — two from China, one from Nigeria, and another from Turkey — said Friday they hadn’t detected any significant problems in the building while living there since September. Nor were they aware that the school was hiring a structural engineer.
“This building is old, but it didn’t make me feel like I’m not safe,’’ Bora Bozkurt, an 18-year-old native of Istanbul, said in the lobby. “Maybe the elevators were a little slow, but that’s it.’’
He said about 40 CATS students lived on the fourth and sixth floors. They had access to a student lounge in the lobby, where they could watch TV and play video games and have snacks. They exercised in a gym in the basement.
Although the exterior of the building bears the words “Nora’s House,’’ the interior displayed traces of its past owner; the door to an office in the lobby had a sign that said “Hamilton House Office.’’
When Faisal first applied for a dormitory license eight years ago, the Brighton Allston Improvement Association opposed his effort, but the licensing board approved the license. Abigail Furey, a board member of the Brighton Allston Improvement Association, said she believes Faisal should no longer be operating dorms in the city of Boston.
“He is a known problem landlord. He avoids oversight,” Furey said. “I would be very concerned given the history of his building that he is running a dorm and playing fast and loose with the rules. It certainly raises my concern.”
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