Current law requires Boston landlords to arrange for a city housing inspection each time a rental unit turns over. The owners almost never comply. And why would they? It’s a poorly conceived, unenforceable ordinance that flies in the face of human nature. It’s the rare landlord who picks up a phone and invites city inspectors to come traipsing through the premises in search of violations of the state sanitary code.
The result, however, is an ugly, adversarial system that kicks into gear only when tenants call the Inspectional Services Department to complain about their living conditions. Worse still, city officials say that old people, immigrants, and students are often clueless about the complaint system or afraid to speak up. That could mean that hundreds or even thousands of apartments have fallen below minimum safety standards without the city's knowledge.
The Menino administration can't just sit around waiting for a rodent infestation or a porch to collapse. So it has proposed an ordinance that requires owners of 140,000 apartment units to submit to mandatory inspections once every three years. It creates some inconvenience for landlords — but nothing along the lines of shelling out $2,000 a month for a two-bedroom unit that is falling apart.
The chief architect of the ordinance, Dion Irish, grew up in a rented apartment on Homestead Street in Roxbury during the 1980s, a neighborhood not exactly known for gracious living. But he's not a zealot. The primary point of the law, he said, is to go over a punch list with owners, not write violations.
"We have an aging city and we want our property owners to be more forward-thinking,'' said Irish, who served as the head of housing inspections for 11 years before taking over the city's office of civil rights.
This is a straightforward effort to enforce the state sanitary code, which requires the most basic of amenities such as working stoves, bathroom doors, trash cans, and lights in common areas. Any landlord who can't comply shouldn't be in the business of renting property in the first place.
It's unclear if the real-estate industry will mount a major attack on the proposed law. The Greater Boston Real Estate Board, which represents landlords and realtors, opposes the measure., but largely on the grounds of the $15 per unit annual registration fee and what it sees as unnecessary red tape. There is no real opposition — yet — to the city's contention that apartments should be inspected on a regular schedule.
Some of the reaction has been counterintuitive. District City Councilor Michael Ross, who has clashed publicly with irresponsible landlords in Mission Hill, worries that the new ordinance would punish an entire industry and not just the "bad apples.'' Other district councilors, including Tito Jackson and Matt O'Malley, worry that the new ordinance will create a bloated bureaucracy.
Exemptions will be key to the success of any such law. The owners of many well-run apartment buildings would be eligible for exemptions based on current good standing with the city. That makes sense. Why unleash an army of inspectors on landlords who fastidiously file and comply with management plans for their apartment units?
Other opt-outs are trickier. The new law would grant automatic exemptions to owner-occupied, one-to-three unit dwellings, which include a significant percentage of the city's roughly 14,000 triple deckers. It's clear that the Menino administration isn't looking to pick a fight with owners of small properties, or specifically those who vote. But if the overriding goal is to put a pair of third-party eyeballs on units that haven't been examined in years, then why ignore thousands of rental units just because the owner lives upstairs?
The belief that owner-occupants can do no wrong is widely held in City Hall. But many on-site owners are inveterate tinkerers who tackle projects greater than their abilities. Their units should be inspected, too. At the other end of the spectrum, out-of-state landlords may object to the ordinance's requirement that they post contact information for local agents. Too bad. When something serious goes wrong in an apartment, there's no time to hunt around in the records of the assessor's office or registry of deeds.
It would be nice if the ordinance could target only problem properties. But properties change hands too often for that. The need for regular inspections is inescapable. A patch job won't do.
Lawrence Harmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.