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Boston has yet to punish anyone for overcrowded student apartments

A Globe report last year found overcrowded apartments riddle the city’s college neighborhoods. Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff/Globe Staff

The final strains of “Pomp and Circumstance’’ are fading into sunny springtime skies. Most caps and gowns are tucked away. The U-Haul trucks have emptied campuses throughout America’s college capital.

So please excuse me for my tardiness with this 11th-hour grade for Boston’s Inspectional Services Department, which is charged with making sure the students, who flock to our city for its reputation for gold-plated higher education, are safe at home.

A quick recap: Last year the Globe’s Spotlight Team published a searing series of stories that demonstrated beyond all doubt that illegally overcrowded apartments riddle the city’s college neighborhoods. It showed that some landlords maximize profits by packing in students who often seek apartments off campus because universities admit more students than they can house.


The city’s reaction was blunt and swift. “My concern is the life of every young college student living off campus in overcrowded apartments,’’ Mayor Martin J. Walsh said last May.

He summoned university presidents from throughout the city, persuading them to do something they had been reluctant to do: surrender the off-campus addresses of their students.

Armed with that data, city inspectors fanned out this spring after they identified 589 properties that appeared to be in violation of a city zoning amendment that prohibits more than four full-time undergraduates from sharing an apartment.

Finally, it appeared, the city was shedding its anemic response to dangerous living conditions. After all, William Christopher, the city’s chief inspector, told me last year that enforcing that code was “not a top priority.’’ It was a remarkable statement that Walsh quickly moved to correct.

“It’s certainly a high priority of mine and he knows it’s a high priority of mine,’’ the mayor told me in January. Great. So the inspectors fanned out and now the results are in.


If you’re not sitting down, please take a seat. Because the number of citations written to landlords violating the overcrowding ordinance is a whopper.

That number? Zero. None. That warrants a final grade of F because it looks like nothing less than surrender.

When I asked ISD to explain itself this week, they said they attempted to inspect all of the nearly 600 suspicious properties during eight sweeps. They were able to gain access to just 146 rental units, where they wrote 60 violations for things such as broken smoke detectors. But they never laid a glove on a single landlord for dangerously overcrowded conditions.

Walsh told me Friday that’s about to change. Within two weeks, he will ask the City Council to put teeth into the ordinance. Recalcitrant landlords would be fined and inspectors would be granted better access to overcrowded units.

“We need to make sure our students have a clean, livable space to live so we don’t have another tragedy like we did a couple years ago,’’ he said, referring to a fatal fire that killed a Boston University senior in 2013.

That’s a welcome improvement. This is the same city that is perfectly capable of hauling undergraduates into district court for playing music too loud or getting too raucous during a heated game of beer pong.

But even after the Globe last year published photographs of overcrowded units, complete with the landlords’ names and the number of students packed into their homes, landlords went unpunished.

What’s at stake? Ask David Goldenberg, whose son, Josh, also a BU student escaped a 2012 fire at his apartment on Linden Street by jumping from an attic window, suffering major head trauma.


“These kinds of tragedies are going to happen again and again and again because the city won’t enforce their legislation or adopt legislation that forces landlords to follow the law,’’ Goldenberg said. “It’s kind of a sham.’’

Walsh now seems to agree. If the existing zoning code is unenforceable, the City Council should follow the mayor’s lead and write one that is.

I wouldn’t want to be a public official the next time, God forbid, fire roars through a student rental unit and reporters ask this question: You knew about this and did nothing?

Fix the law. It’s called leadership. All the great universities teach courses about it.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.