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City steps up efforts against scofflaw landlords in college neighborhoods

Posted by Johanna Kaiser  April 30, 2012 06:00 PM

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Update: This story has been updated to include comments from Mr. Ciliberti.

Boston city inspectors are stepping up efforts to push for better living conditions for college students who rent off-campus apartments that often have a variety of housing violations.

Since January, the Inspectional Services Department has been making public appeals to students to teach them about their rights as tenants. The goal is to prevent unresponsive landlords from ignoring students' concerns.

But officials say students' knowing their rights is only half the challenge. Ensuring that owners correct violations and pay fines can become a continuous battle of inspections, re-inspections, and court dates.

“It’s unfair to the residents,” said acting Inspectional Services Commissioner Bryan Glascock, describing some student apartments--especially those in Allston-Brighton--as “unsafe” and “barely habitable.”

During a February sweep of a portion of Allston, inspectors found 82 violations ranging from infestations and missing banisters to faulty carbon monoxide detectors, blocked exits, and illegal living spaces at 25 units.

As of Wednesday, 30 cases of the code violations in the 16 buildings inspected had been closed by the city after re-inspections found the violations had been corrected.

Three of those closed cases were not resolved until the city filed cases against the landlords in housing court. The city has scheduled or is in the midst of six court proceedings to require landlords to correct problems that were not corrected when the city re-inspected units.

Those re-inspections come with a fee for property owners, as do the violations.

The city hopes the citations act as incentives for landlords to reinvest in their properties, but fines often go unpaid as owners treat them as part of the cost of doing business, Glascock said.

“The rents are so high it doesn’t faze them,” said Glascock, noting that until a 2010 ordinance allowed the city’s assessing department to tack on unpaid code violations to an owner’s property tax bill, fines were often ignored.

“The tools we had in the past were fairly narrowly tailored,” said Glascock. “They made it difficult for us to make tickets have the kind of effect we want them to have.”

The new policy allows the city to eventually put a lien against the property if the violations not paid in full, but that has not brought in all outstanding fines.

One Allston property owner, Joseph A. Ciliberti, owns 16 properties throughout the neighborhood and owes a total of $11,695 in code violations on nine properties. Another five buildings Ciliberti owns with Kevin Ryan owe a total of $18,000 in code violations.

An additional $6,760 for unpaid fines has been transferred to the taxes of those five properties. He owes no money on two other properties.

Glascock said there are “bad actors” in every neighborhood, especially in heavily student areas such as Mission Hill and Allston, but these totals were not typical.

“This one really stood out,” he said.

A bulk of the money owed is for recurring violations, including improper trash storage and illegal dumping of trash, along with re-inspection and late fees.

"I have a responsibility to keep the property clean, but I can't babysit them 24 hours a day," said Ciliberti, referring to fines for trash left out by tenants.

Ciliberti said he works hard to keep his properties clean, including cleaning the alley behind his and others' properties to prevent trash from blowing around the area, providing enough trash bins, and inspecting the areas on a regular basis, and has received fewer tickets in recent years.

Some of the properties owned by Ciliberti and Ryan have seen other violations ranging from cleanliness of apartments to safety in the building.

At 10 Chester St. city inspectors in September found 20 violations including evidence of mice, black substance in the shower, and peeling paint. They also found that a stairway leading in disrepair, and no lights or handrails along the basement stairs. Outside, they found large holes in the foundation and a rotted window.

Those violations were corrected upon re-inspection, but an inspection of 48 Brighton Ave. in August found that windows on three of the floors were missing, not fit for the use intended and the glass in a fourth floor window was about to fall out, according to inspection reports.

Those violations still existed a month later, and were not corrected until after inspectors filed a case with the housing court.

However, Ciliberti said that because some of the windows were on the fifth floor, a crane was needed to do the job, and that took time to get. Once the crane was in place, the windows were fixed within three hours.

"If there’s a problem--there’s going to be problems--I take care of it," said Ciliberti, noting that when problems occur, as they will in any building, he is responsive to his tenants.

"I take care of things immediately," he said.

Kevin Ryan, who owns those two properties with Ciliberti, said that any apartment is bound to have occasional problems, but said all his tenants have his cell phone number and his maintenance worker lives in the neighborhood.

All the violations found on the properties in February have been corrected and he is working with Inspectional Services to resolve remaining issues, he said.

“If you have a problem, it’s not in your interest not to address it. It doesn’t make any sense. It has to be fixed,” said Ryan, who owes $970.00 in code violations at three properties. An additional $3,305 for unpaid fines has been transferred to the taxes of four properties.

Ryan said he did not know if all his fines were paid, but said he has provided the dumpsters, recycling bins, and trash removal to address problems with trash in the neighborhood.

“I don’t throw trash on the streets of Brighton,” he said, adding that it would be impossible to ensure daily that tenants do not leave refuse in the yards or streets.

The city is working with universities and neighborhood groups to ensure students act as good neighbors to prevent problems such as loose trash, Glascock said.

The city plans to continue its campaign to ensure safe housing for students and this week announced a public education campaign aimed at educating immigrants of their rights as tenants.

“We will continue to hold landlords accountable, not only to the laws and building and health codes, but also to the tenants who put their trust in these people,” Mayor Thomas M. Menino in a statement. “Landlords have an obligation to provide safe and clean housing, and we are going to enforce that obligation.”
Twitter: @JohannaKaiser

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