“This is really important,” said the superintendent who watches the front door of a rooming house on Boston’s Beacon Hill, just half a block from the State House. “There aren’t many of these left. If these people didn’t have this, a lot of them, they’d be on the street.”
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Rooming houses, boarding houses, single-room occupancies, lodging houses, flophouses. Call them what you will, they are an endangered species, a dying breed.

In just 20 short years, from 1965 to 1985, Massachusetts lost 96% of its rooming house units, the largest drop in the whole country. That’s the Number One cause of Massachusetts’ high rate of homelessness. The consequence: Massachusetts spends more money on homeless shelters than any other state.

What private owners are stopped from doing cheaply, the government is allowed to do at exorbitant cost.

Once viable option

Traditionally, rooming houses rent by the week and have served single people in transition: students, new graduates starting out, newcomers, people changing jobs, people in a personal or family crisis. They have also served as a permanent home for single people on the edges: people who can live independently but may have mental or physical limitations.

But this once viable housing option for the poor and the struggling has been virtually destroyed, a domino-effect that can be laid to one source: a bad reputation from uncontrollable residents that owners can’t evict.

Rooming houses in Massachusetts are subject to the same lengthy, tortuous eviction procedures that govern apartments. That gives the already high-risk residents of roomng houses the opportunity to snub their noses at owners, slack off in behavior and, any time they need it, get a free-rent ride for months. In more upscale neighborhoods, owners suffer through periodic stints of months of lost rent while the other residents wait for the unpleasant neighbor down the hall to get very slowly evicted. In lower-income neighborhoods, owners easily lose control as rooming houses slide into disrepute and turn into dens of drug-dealing and prostitution.

With owner control so uncertain, neighborhoods turn against rooming houses, and politicians follow suit. Old ones get shut down, and no one wants to let new ones start up.

Campaign against them

The city of Boston alone has lost about 18,000 units, down from 20,000 in the 1960’s to a meager 2,000 units at present. And those remaining units are under attack by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who over the past year has orchestrated a multi-agency attack on the city’s rooming houses.

The Boston campaign reached high profile about a year ago when Kevin Joyce took over as head of the city’s Inspectional Services Department and soon began rooming house shut-downs. With less than an hour’s notice, residents were on the streets, front doors locked and windows boarded up. The official justification: unrepaired code violations.

A year ago, 81-year-old black landlady Willa Mae Brothers of Dorchester was jailed and forced to sell her four rooming houses, boarded up in an ISD blitz. Inspectors agreed that she had lost control of her residents, who seldom paid rent, blocked repairs and could not be evicted. Brothers has apparently moved away. All four of her rooming houses have been purchased by non-profit agencies to be maintained, now at taxpayer expense, as homeless shelters. In other words, the government is now doing at much higher cost what private owners are being stopped from doing much, much more efficiently.

Multi-agency assault


Another target of official shut-downs is Clifford Davis, a 43-year real estate veteran and the so-called “king of rooming houses” in Boston’s Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods. In the past year, Davis has lost licenses on 14 of his rooming houses and been forced to convert them to standard apartments. He still operates about 440 rooms in 26 buildings.

Davis’ chief complaint is that Boston inspectors will cite code violations, but refuse to clear them out after he has repaired them.With violations still officially on the books, the city is free to shut the housing down as a public safety risk, which Davis contends is exactly what the city has done to him. Davis wants inspectors held more tightly accountable for re-inspections. His complaint about re-inspections is common among Boston property owners.

Davis also says the police refuse to help him control drug activity in his rooming houses. Davis points to a Boston Licensing Board rule that more than four police calls a year constitute excessive use of police and grounds for pulling a rooming house license. That rule alone effectively leaves rooming house owners without police protection. The police tell Davis to hire private security guards, but they are subject to bribes and too expensive, Davis says. The picture Davis paints is of rooming house owners left on their own, unable to evict problem tenants and surrounded by hostile city agencies.

“The city’s course of removing licensed rooming houses is most definitely wrong, illegal, immoral, dim-witted, short-sighted and stupid,” said Davis, who is itching to talk to Mayor Menino. The mayor is not likely to talk to Davis.

The ‘no-campaign’ campaign

Public relations aide Julie Fothergill says her Boston Inspectional Services Department has no campaign to get rid of rooming houses. What it does have, however, is a “lodging house enforcement initiative” that receives complaints from inspectors, fire and police personnel, anonymous callers and neighborhood groups, in short, from any and every Tom, Dick or Harry who calls. It then sends a team of inspectors, fire and police personnel and even Department of Revenue officials to investigate. In the past year alone, ISD has investigated 50 “trouble properties” and shut down 30 as operating illegally without permits. The owners are temporarily back in operation under injunctions they secured.

Fothergill steered clear of addressing owners’ difficulties in controlling residents, laying the blame on “poor management” and owners just not getting a license. What her department can do, however, is something owners can’t: put tenants out on the street with less than an hour’s notice. That’s the city’s choice tactic to solve the problem, but it’s not available to owners.

Homelessness

Rooming house “king” Davis, whose name is almost a swear word at ISD, contends thatthe city’s strategy is just pushing problems elsewhere – and putting people out on the street. It’s a view that gets support from the state’s leading homelessness advocate, Paul Mangano of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, and from the state’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance (A&F), which recently studied the homelessness problem.

Mangano agrees that “there is a big market for rooming houses, the market is being stifled, and new rooming houses are not coming on line.” He says that 80% of the homeless are only temporarily homeless, due to unexpected problems like a divorce or a lost job. “This 80% could be handled by rooming houses,” Mangano says, “and would not be homeless if there were enough rooming houses.”

Quoting the statistics on lost rooming house units, Mangano says the direct result is homeless persons on the streets or in homeless shelter beds that cost taxpayers about $1,300 a month per bed rather than the typical $375 to $450 monthly rent of a private rooming house room.

At $15 a day or less, a private room is affordable for most homeless persons, who typically earn $25 to $30 a day collecting return bottles or begging. They can eat on the rest of their daily income.

The state government’s A&F study points to the same steep drop in units, the sharp rise in homelessness, and wonders if Massachusetts’ highest-in-the-country public spending on the problem – 7% higher than New York, five times higher than Connecticut – can’t be better spent. Spending more tax dollars is not an option.

No coincidence

So here we have the story of the death of rooming houses, reasonably priced private housing serving the vulnerable poor – for which every possible support has been taken away. Eviction of problem tenants is made virtually impossible. Police control is adamantly refused. Finally, inspectors stand by ready and willing to swoop down, shut down the housing, and throw vulnerable tenants into the street with less than an hour’s notice. And then a call for more funding for shelters for mounting numbers of homeless.

Coincidence? Or are we right that housing laws and public policies are being constructed and lobbied for by legal aid lawyers and salaried advocates for the poor with the goal of putting private housing providers out of business so that tax-funded developers of subsidized housing can take over?