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Housing inspectors sweep through student enclaves

Buildings checked for code violations

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Inspectional Services chief William Christopher and spokeswoman Lisa Timberlake examined a dwelling on Chester Street in Allston where inspectors found more than 30 violations on Sunday.

By Milton J. Valencia and Jan Ransom Globe Staff 

Students have begun arriving in Boston’s college neighborhoods, and so have the inspectors in orange vests.

About 50 inspectors with the city’s Inspectional Services Department joined transportation, code enforcement, public works, and neighborhood development workers Sunday, in an annual public ritual of inspecting apartments during the city’s biggest moving week of the year.

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During one stop at 74 Chester St. in Allston, city employees were concerned that too many tenants were crowding into the dwelling. Les Christos, a 30-year-housing inspector constable, began to check the windows, and their locks, and noticed a broken sash cord. A stain in the ceiling. Then he noticed there was no stove.

The tenants told him they haven’t had one for two months, and that the building manager had told them cooking is overrated.

“This is pretty bad,” Christos said of the conditions. “You don’t have a stove, you got some water leaks, the kitchen fan is all greasy . . . that can cause a fire.”

The goal of the annual blitz, city officials said, is for inspectors to interact with new students and residents and offer services, to make sure the moving-in process is smooth and trash-free, and that housing — particularly off-campus housing for students — is safe and up to code.

The inspectors also publicized the city’s new 311 program, which allows residents to call the number 311 or download a related app to report any city violations.

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“The message is going to be one of cooperation and support, to make sure the students who come in here have a good experience,” said William “Buddy” Christopher, commissioner of Boston’s Inspectional Services Department, who joined his staff on inspections Sunday.

But some are skeptical of the mass inspections, which typically occur at the start of each school year and can appear more symbolic than strategic. The critics say more inspections — and citations of properties that violate city rules — are needed.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

City housing inspectors found more than 30 violations at one building on Chester Street in Allston.

Such oversight has taken on new importance following concerns that students were living in dilapidated units. A Boston Globe Spotlight investigation in 2014 found that the city’s college neighborhoods were riddled with dangerously overcrowded units that went unnoticed, leading to public safety problems. Landlords, meanwhile, had ignored violations so that they could continue to collect rent with little investment.

The Spotlight report centered in large part on the death of Binland Lee, a 22-year-old Boston University student who was killed in a fire in 2013 after getting trapped in her attic bedroom, in an apartment in Allston that had insufficient exits and a faulty fire alarm system.

City officials, responding to the newspaper’s report, 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, but critics said the city has still failed to do more to penalize landowners.

Kevin Carragee, co-president of the Hobart Park Neighborhood Association, moved into his Brighton neighborhood in 1989, and he said the city needs a year-round, proactive strategy to ensure safe and quality housing for students, and also for long-term residents who call these neighborhoods home.

“This is a fall ritual,” he said, “But I think the question for people in Allston and Brighton where a lot of residents live is whether a systematic approach to substandard housing can be taken.”

Christopher said that he spoke with Mayor Martin J. Walsh on Sunday, and that the mayor has been monitoring the inspection process. He said that the city has increasingly engaged students and landlords in the last year, and that both have been receptive.

He said students are told to call housing inspectors when they have problems, because “as soon as we get involved, things get done quickly.”

Christopher said one critical message to students has been that “we don’t throw students out because landlords aren’t taking care of their property.” But, he said, the purpose is to have landlords resolve code violations.

At times, that can depend on tenants. Another inspector at the house on Chester Street found that two bedrooms in the basement blocked exits and had the wrong size windows. The inspector also had concerns about the fire escape, which lacked an up-to-date inspection certificate. There were at least a dozen rat burrows in the backyard, and the basement of the dwelling smelled of cat urine.

The tenants received a violation for not keeping the place clean. There were liquor bottles and other trash around the house. They started cleaning immediately.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Housing inspectors said rats burrowed into this building on Chester Street in Allston.

David Hsu, 24, moved into the house last year. He said he knew there were some issues with the house but didn’t realize it was so bad.

As he stood in his bedroom doorway and spoke to a reporter Sunday, the ceiling above him began to leak and form a puddle. During the winter, there was no heat for three weeks, he said.

“We try to get in contact with property managers there and they’re slow to respond,” Hsu said. “They’d say they’ll come to fix it but no one would show up. A lot of people just gave up.”

The owner of the property is Michael Polacco, who has a history of building code violations, according to city records.

Polacco could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Alp Kantar, property manager with Boston Property Management, said that the company inspected the place two weeks ago, and that he told the tenants to clean the place.

“It’s kind of embarrassing,” he said in a phone interview. “This is the first time I’m facing this.”

Kantar said he did not know about the leaks in the house or the roughly one dozen rat burrows in the backyard, but he was thankful the city brought those and other issues to his attention.

“I wish they would do this more often, not just the day before Sept. 1, that way property managers can be more active about it. We’re not perfect,” Kantar said.

Christopher also said the property owner, though he did not identify Polacco, will be cited beginning Monday for at least 30 violations at the property.


Milton J Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia
Jan Ransom can be reachedf atjan.ransom@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @Jan_Ransom.