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Framingham to start checking rental units

With one of the largest collections of apartments in Boston’s western suburbs, Framingham will start inspecting rental units when they turn over in hopes of heading off hazardous and unsafe living conditions.

Town Meeting voters last month dedicated $50,000 to get the inspections rolling, which will require the hiring of part-time staff by the Board of Health, said Robert Halpin, Framingham’s town manager.

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One of the driving factors behind the policy change is the large size of Framingham’s rental stock, which accounts for 43 percent of the housing in town, Halpin said.

The aim is also to shift from a reactive, complaint-based system to a more preventive effort, in hopes of creating a more collaborative working relationship with landlords, he said.

“Traditionally, we reacted to the problem on the basis of complaints after problems developed,” Halpin said. “It is a very time-consuming, adversarial process that typically winds up in court.”

Framingham will join several cities and towns in Eastern Massachusetts with apartment inspections, including Boston, Everett, Lowell, and Malden.

Town officials modeled the new program on the efforts in the other communities, meeting in particular with Malden’s public health chief, Christopher Webb.

Malden’s officials go down a long list of basic safety and health requirements when they inspect an apartment, including ensuring there are working smoke alarms, adequate lighting in the common areas, proper locks on screens and doors, and the wiring and plumbing meet building codes, Webb said.

The units are much easier to inspect when they are empty, in between tenants, he said.

Part of the effort involves educating landlords on their responsibilities.

“The landlord understands he has a management responsibility above and beyond collecting the rent,” Webb said, adding that for tenants, the inspections “should help them sleep at night.”

Malden’s program has brought in revenue of $100,000 since 2009, with 2,000 apartments inspected for a $50 fee, he said.

Webb said the program has cut down on the number of costly, time-consuming complaints while improving Malden’s reputation as a desirable community for renters.

The certificates can be helpful to landlords as well, providing a base line of conditions in the apartment before a tenant moves in, he said.

“It’s a very simple program,” Webb said. “That is why it works so well.”

In Framingham, health board officials also plan to charge $50 for each inspection, Halpin said.

City health, fire, and safety codes will provide the standards the inspectors will use.

Framingham plans to roll out the program gradually over the first year, launching a public awareness effort through mailers and other advertising to get the word out to landlords and renters, he said.

Apartment building owners are taking a wait-and-see approach, said Gregory Vasil, executive director of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.

One concern is whether there will be enough inspectors to check out all of the units that turn over in a town like Framingham, which has thousands of apartments, without creating a backlog.

“People don’t want to wait in the street, waiting for someone to give the OK for them to move into an apartment,” Vasil said. “The art is to craft a law that actually works and isn’t burdensome to anyone.”

Scott Van Voorhis can be reached at sbvanvoorhis@ hotmail.com.
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