Absentee Landlords

By Janelle Nanos | Boston Magazine |

THE HUGE SIGN wasn’t exactly subtle. For more than a month, the words problem property flashed in bright orange lights outside the three-decker at 102 Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury. Then again, Thomas and Angela Ganzales, the alleged cocaine dealers who’d been working out of the house, weren’t all that discreet, either. Neither were the prostitutes turning tricks in the abandoned cars littering the lot next door. In the 12 months that led up to the city installing the sign, police had been called to the building 105 times. That placed it at the top of Boston’s new register of problem properties — a Most Wanted list of houses and apartments that are chronically plagued by crime.

[sidebar]The list is part of the city’s Problem Properties Task Force, a unique initiative created this summer by an executive order from Mayor Menino that holds landlords accountable for the less-than-neighborly actions of their tenants…to say nothing of their own misdeeds. A property owner who repeatedly ignores the drug dealing on his doorstep or the hookers working in his apartments, or who threatens tenants complaining about unsuitable living conditions, may now find a giant flashing sign outside his property, a kind of blinking scarlet letter. And since shame itself isn’t always sufficient motivation, he may also discover first that a police cruiser has been parked outside his property, and then that he’s being billed for the detail — $1,152 per day — until the city decides the problems have been adequately addressed.

To determine which landlords to target, task-force members sift through citation data from half a dozen city agencies, then review incident reports from the police. At that point all the pieces of information are fed into a computer that crunches the numbers and spits out the list of problem properties, which are triaged based on their offenses. If a building has received more than four criminal calls in a year, it’s labeled a problem property. If there are four health-code or other violations, the landlords may be fined up to $300 per offense, plus $300 a day if they fail to act. And if there have been eight or more police calls to a building, a cruiser can be stationed outside.

The Problem Properties Task Force is the latest effort in the city’s ongoing battle against crime. It’s rooted in the idea that a few bad apples really do spoil the bunch, that a small number of truly troubled properties can have an outsize effect on the quality of life in an entire neighborhood. The program is notable for the way it pulls information from a number of unlinked city databases to pinpoint the problem buildings, and for how it empowers the police to go after not just the people who are breaking the law, but also the people who own the properties in which they’re doing it.

“We have a lot of landlords in the city who work very hard to maintain quality housing,” says City Councilor Maureen Feeney, who cochaired the council’s effort to establish the task force. “But there is an undercurrent of people who flip-flop houses and purchase property but aren’t invested.” Of course, landlords are quick to point out that this is just one in a string of many less-than-effective attempts by Menino to target negligent property owners. Yet the city insists the task force is a very smart solution for long-troubled Boston neighborhoods.

But is it smart enough to actually work?  

A LINE OF OFFICERS clutching cups of coffee shuffle through the door to a CompStat meeting at the police department’s Roxbury headquarters. It’s early in the morning on August 18, and only a few of the cops seem to be feeling the effects of the caffeine. But they straighten up as Commissioner Ed Davis, the definition of barrel-chested, walks in and begins explaining that some changes are about to take effect.

Photographs by Scott M. Lacey