The fire that killed a 22-year-old Boston University student also revealed one of the dirty secrets of the city’s rental housing market: Weak housing inspection practices allow Boston landlords to cram tenants into unsafe living quarters, with little fear that anyone will hold them accountable. The city has to commit more resources and manpower to keeping renters safe.
The Allston house where Binland Lee died had not been inspected since 1992. When fire broke out at 87 Linden St. early on April 28, Lee, a marine sciences student from Brooklyn, N.Y., was apparently trapped in a third-floor attic. There was only one way out — an interior staircase that was ravaged by flames.
According to city officials, 19 people were living in the building, an apparent violation of a city ordinance that restricts renters to four unrelated undergraduates per dwelling. Since no city inspector had checked inside the building for decades, no one knew who was living there, nor under what conditions.
The landlord, Anna Belokurova, will now be cited for multiple housing code violations, including operating an illegal rooming house. She was also cited for failing to obtain proper permits to extend the living space to the basement. Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley has also assigned a prosecutor to investigate Lee’s death.
But no one believes Belokurova is the only landlord cramming extra tenants into a building. Boston’s high rents create a market, especially among the tens of thousands of college students who come to Boston each year, for cheap but legally dubious living arrangements.
The city needs more housing units, but it must also police the safety of the ones it has. Under current law, Boston landlords must arrange for a city housing inspection each time a rental unit turns over. However, few comply. After all, who would be anxious to invite city inspectors to scope out possible violations? And the city is obviously aware that landlords are routinely skipping inspections, since there are only 20 inspectors assigned to police 140,000 rental units.
Last year, a fire gutted a house at 84 Linden St., displacing several students and leaving one in a coma. Bryan Glascock, the city’s inspectional services commissioner, told the Globe that after that fire, officials from his department conducted a door-to-door fire prevention campaign. According to Glascock, inspectors knocked on the door at 87 Linden. There was no answer.
A new law that takes effect this month will require property owners to register their rentals. Landlords who don’t comply will be subject to fines. Yet, the new law, like the old ones, is only as good as its enforcement. The city needs to hire enough inspectors to enforce the law, and work harder to educate tenants about safety standards — especially students who may be only vaguely aware of their rights.