1343288_clapper_for_doorBoston Globe’s scathing report on negligent landlords stops compromise effort

For several weeks before the final decision on inspections, Boston City Councilors and Mayor Martin Walsh were negotiating on a new inspection ordinance, one to replace the existing ordinance. The new ordinance would have been very close to one of SPOA’s two recommended inspection options.

Then, three weeks before the final decision, the Boston Globe ran a scathing investigative report on negligent owners of student-occupied housing, which constitutes only about 5% of Boston’s housing market. When the three-article series hit the newsstands, everything changed. In no way could the Councilors look as if they were soft on landlords. They closed ranks.

Compromise seemed possible

Before the Globe report, SPOA was told that a compromise ordinance was under consideration. It would call for something along these lines: inspection every five years of the same rental properties required under the existing ordinance, but it would authorize the city to inspect only exteriors and common areas (halls, stairways, basements, etc.) and to inspect only for serious safety violations, not minor or cosmetic violations. SPOA’s proposal did not deal with registration or associated fees, which now remain in place after the vote — except that owner-occupied one- to six-unit buildings will not incur any fees.

Then the Globe report was published. It painted landlords of student-occupied housing as rich, greedy, negligent, scofflaw slumlords — all the usual epithets hurled at landlords to justify strict regulation, such as rent control. It did not matter that the Globe could have written the same report without using those terms. The language, by implication, smeared all landlords.

City Councilors and the new Mayor were suddenly confronted with this anti-landlord report reaching a large population of residents and scrambled to look tough on landlords. The compromise was scrapped, and the existing ordinance, with a minor change, was affirmed.

We came that close 

It is hard to imagine that SPOA will not have influence as the reaffirmed, existing ordinance is implemented. But that influence will have to be informal. It means communicating with Mayor Walsh and all the City Councilors that inspections will be useful only if they are focused on problem properties, ones with evidence that significant safety violations are likely to exist inside the building.

If inspections are not focused on problem properties but cover all rental properties, much time and effort will be spent, as SPOA has said over and over, on minor or cosmetic violations that pose no threat to safety while the seriously dangerous properties get identified only very slowly.

Most safety violations will occur in lower-income neighborhoods where the burden of paying for safety repairs will by itself push rents up. Repairing cosmetic and minor code violations as well — which will also be more numerous in lower-income neighborhoods — will push rents up even more, on tenants that can least afford it. The inspection ordinance that SPOA was fighting against was truly flawed if implemented to the fullest extent possible.

One owner has calculated that the cost of registration and inspection alone (without counting the cost of repairs, but counting landlord time waiting for the inspector to arrive and complete the inspection) will amount to a rent increase of $4 per month for every rental unit. The cost of repairs will be considerably more.

Globe series smears all landlords

The Boston Globe series on student landlords used highly provocative language that portrayed this small number of landlords in the most negative fashion. The effect was to paint all landlords as negligent in the extreme. Here is a sample of language used in just seven pages out of the 78-page report available online:

The Globe said “greed” when it could have said “profit-conscious.” It said “squalid” when it could have said “poor” or “substandard.” It said “jammed full” instead of “crowded into.” “Scofflaw” instead of “code-offending.” “Overstuffed” instead of “over the legal limit.” “Crack down” instead of “enforce.” “College rental ghettos” instead of “student-dominated neighborhoods.” “Defy codes” instead of “ignore codes.” “Filthy units” instead of “unclean units.” “Units crammed illegally” instead of “units installed illegally.” “Rodents are everywhere” instead of “rodents have infested.” “Off-campus population soared” instead of “off-campus population grew.”

In other words, inflammatory and condemning language was used instead of plain, ordinary, descriptive language. It was anti-landlord language often used to describe landlords in general. The effect was to smear all landlords.

One of the articles claimed that “Globe reporters and correspondents visited block after block of rental properties in student-rich enclaves and found overcrowding a fact of life” when in fact only 13 properties were actually investigated in all three articles. Looking at properties from the outside is not a valid basis to tell what’s going on inside in terms of number of residents or physical conditions of the property.

“Overcrowding” was a frequently used term in the Globe’s articles, based on a Boston zoning law that prohibits more than four full-time undergraduate students occupying any single apartment. But the Globe said not one word about the obvious problem that some large properties have more than four bedrooms, yet more than four students is called “overcrowding” by the Globe as well as Mayor Walsh. Two persons per bedroom is not really overcrowding, as many college dormitories have double occupancy. The no-more-than-four rule is quite arbitrary and inadequate to define overcrowding. And it is virtually impossible to regulate. But it is an easy way to slander landlords.