Walsh vows housing crackdown in Boston

Boston mayor promises fines, inspections for off-campus college student housing

Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Wednesday that the city will levy $300 daily fines on scofflaw landlords, increase the number of inspections, and demand that colleges in Boston disclose the addresses of undergraduate students living off campus, measures designed to protect the health and safety of tens of thousands of university students.

“My concern is the life of every young college student living off campus in overcrowded apartments,” Walsh said.

The mayor’s announcement follows this week’s Globe Spotlight Team investigation that reported that illegally overcrowded apartments riddle the city’s college neighborhoods, where some absentee landlords maximize profits by packing in students who often seek apartments off campus because universities admit more students than they can house.

Meanwhile, Northeastern University said Wednesday that it may sever its relationship with one of Boston’s most notorious landlords, who has received millions from the school over the past decade to house its students in a dozen buildings near the campus. The university’s ties to the landlord were a focus of the Spotlight report.

Walsh, responding to the report’s findings about landlords who repeatedly violate city and state regulations but receive kid-glove treatment from regulators and the courts, pledged to crack down and fine property owners $300 a day for each violation.

The city already has the power to impose such fines, but rarely does so.

Walsh said in a phone interview: “We absolutely have to be tougher.”

The mayor also plans to hire more inspectors to regularly check the city’s 154,000 rental units for potential code violations. The Globe series uncovered widespread problems in Allston, Brighton, Fenway, and Mission Hill, where students were living with a host of indignities and hazards, from rodent and pest infestations, to doors without working locks, to missing smoke detectors, and bedrooms crammed illegally into basements or firetrap attics.

The city had already earmarked money to pay for five additional inspectors to carry out a new inspection regimen. But Walsh said that is not enough and that he will hire more. But he did not have specifics on how many or when.

The mayor also said he intends to meet soon with representatives of all the colleges in Boston to insist that they turn over addresses of undergraduates living off campus, review university expansion plans, and make schools live up to promises to move students out of the neighborhoods and onto campus.

Northeastern University, for example, signed an agreement with the city in 2004 to end, within five years, its practice of leasing apartments for students in privately owned buildings in the Fenway area.

But Northeastern, which houses only 47 percent of undergraduates on campus, continues to rent apartments for 600 students. More than half of them live in buildings owned by one of the city’s most infamous landlords, Anwar N. Faisal.

“If you make a commitment to do something as a college or a university, you should live up to that,” said Walsh, who called the Globe Wednesday to detail his plan to protect students.

Northeastern said Wednesday that it is reconsidering its business relationship with Faisal, one of the biggest landlords for college students in Boston. The Spotlight Team found that Faisal and his real estate companies, including Alpha Management Corp., have been defendants in dozens of criminal and civil cases in Boston Housing Court over the past decade.

The Spotlight Team, as part of its investigation, recently surveyed students living in 40 apartments in six Faisal buildings on Hemenway and St. Stephen streets. The occupants of 37 of those apartments, or 93 percent, reported at least one significant problem, such as pests, mold, inoperable smoke alarms, and broken locks on apartment doors.

“The leadership of Northeastern University is extremely concerned about revelations uncovered by The Boston Globe’s recent investigative series on student housing in Boston,” Steven Kadish, senior vice president and chief operating officer for the school, wrote in a letter to Faisal Wednesday.

“The multiple and specific examples of abhorrent living conditions in your company’s apartments are very troubling and, if substantiated, warrant your immediate attention and response.”

Kadish wrote that Northeastern intends to carefully study the Globe’s findings. “If, after a thorough review of the facts, we are not satisfied with the quality of student housing your company provides, Northeastern will conclude its master leasing arrangement with Alpha Management and discourage our students from independently renting apartments from Alpha Management,” he wrote.

Michael Armini, Northeastern’s senior vice president for external affairs, said the school will carry out its review over the summer and into the fall. Armini said Northeastern, which bankrolled renovations in units it leased from Faisal, had focused on these units, rather than apartments that students rent directly from the landlord in the same buildings.

“Certainly, the revelations of the last few days have heightened our interest in all of Alpha Management’s properties,” he said.

Faisal could not be reached Wednesday afternoon. A woman who answered the phone at Faisal’s Brookline office said Alpha had no comment about the letter Northeastern sent.

Ethan Arruda-Leuppert, who graduated from Northeastern in 2012 and rented directly from Alpha during his senior year, said he was surprised that his alma mater would do business with Faisal. He said the university should terminate its relationship with him.

“It was miserable,” Arruda-Leuppert, 23, said of his time living at 311 Huntington Ave., where he said Alpha Management failed to respond to widespread problems including broken doors, a nonfunctioning stove, oppressive heat, and rodents.

On Wednesday, Walsh said that when he meets with representatives of colleges, he will insist that they provide the addresses of students living off campus. That will help the city to more readily detect cases of overcrowding, defined by a zoning rule as more than four full-time undergraduates sharing a single apartment or house. If the colleges do not comply, Walsh said, he will take additional steps.

“If the colleges refuse to do it, I’m looking possibly to take legislative action to make it happen” through a city ordinance, he said. “I have that ability.”

The series found that some landlords in college neighborhoods commonly flout the no-more-than-four zoning rule. Student tenants are often complicit because they cannot afford the rent without sharing it with a larger group.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

The supposed overcrowding law:

1) Only applies to undergraduates.

2) Bans more than 4 undergrads in any apartment or house, even if it has more than 4 legitimate bedrooms.

In other words, there's safety, and there's the law, and they aren't always the same thing.

Raphael Dumas about 9 years ago

The real issues are:

1) Dearth of rental housing

2) Universities increasing their enrolment without building more dorms

3) Zoning

Until you deal with the overly constrained supply, there are going to be people reaping profits off of forcing students into inhumane situations.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

Wouldn't it be a violation of privacy for schools to release to the city the names and addresses of students? This is not a police state! Residents do not need to register or reveal where they live. Likewise, students have a right to privacy. It would be a violation of their rights for the school to release their names or addresses.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

As someone that lives off campus in an apartment, I really am not ok with MIT releasing my info or with somebody coming to check my apartment. I live by myself and am the only undergrad in my building. My landlord is perfectly normal, and I don't want my privacy violated.