Last week the Boston Globe completed its “Spotlight” series on unsafe apartments rented to college students in Boston, and the sometimes deadly and dangerous consequences of same. Like many “Spotlight” reports, it could have been written by Captain Obvious because anybody who attended college in Boston, or knows anybody that attended college in Boston, knows that apartments are routinely cobbled out of basements and attics. Notwithstanding the attempt by the article to spread the blame around to landlords, Boston Inspectional Services and the colleges, the real culprit is: money.
The colleges accept more students than they can house. Students (and often parents) don’t want to pay more than they have to. Landlords want to make a profit. Inspectional Services claims it does not have the financial resources to properly police the landlords and the apartments. I doubt the City of Newton would allow students to live in unlawful basement and attic units. I was reminded of 81 Spooner Road LLC v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Brookline, 78 Mass. App. Ct. 233 (2010), aff'd on other grounds, 461 Mass. 692 (2012) in which a resident chased a neighbor all the way to the Appeals Court because he feared the neighbor was going to construct a game room in the attic of a single family dwelling. In the suburbs, the neighbors would complain loudly and frequently, and the city would purse enforcement and recover the maximum penalties allowed by law. The City of Boston should take a hint from the suburbs and collect as much money as possible from the landlords as filing fees, inspection fees and penalties; and use the revenue to hire more inspectors and prosecutors. For reasons unexplained in the article, Boston appears to collect very little money from offending landlords. The article stated that one landlord had received tickets totaling $51,720 for violations but paid only $3,010 and most of the unpaid tickets were dismissed. In the suburbs, one cannot open a hot dog stand without obtaining a pile of permits and paying for the related fees, expenses and “peer review consultant fees.”
But unless the problem is addressed head on, it will only get worse. The article hints at the overall economic impact caused by lack of enforcement. As landlords find ways to squeeze in more and more tenants per building, the additional rent revenue artificially increases the value of the buildings which (a) artificially drives up the cost of real estate in the neighborhood forcing out more and more owner occupied buildings and (b) places pressure on other competing landlords to stuff more tenants in their buildings. Consequently, the cycle continues and creates more unlawful units. We know from the experiences of the real estate booms and busts over the past few decades that artificially increasing the price of real estate generally pads the wallets of the few at the expense of many.
Finally, every college and university that turns a blind eye to the problem should immediately rewrite their policies and practices. The tragic and preventable death of Binland Lee should be a wake up call to every college President in Boston to become proactive in protecting the health and safety of their students.
PAUL F. ALPHEN, ESQUIRE
ALPHEN & SANTOS, P.C