Absentee Landlords

To clean up its worst neighborhoods, Boston has instituted a new plan targeting absentee landlords. But can it really work?

The house at 100 Mt. Pleasant Avenue in Roxbury is quiet on a Wednesday afternoon in late August, which is a nice change. You can barely make out the gorgeous wooden frame of the late-19th-century home, as its façade has been stuccoed over, giving it the appearance of a concrete bunker. The effect is enhanced by the large pieces of cardboard and garbage bags that have been placed over the windows. The coverings are there for a reason: The house, which sits on a quiet stretch of street just a few blocks from Blue Hill Avenue, is a haven for prostitutes and their clients. The building’s reported owner and “manager,” Fard Ahmed, has been renting out rooms by the hour for nearly a decade, according to neighbors. He’s so brazen about it, in fact, that he’s posted signs instructing customers to choose between two-hour and five-hour payment plans.

The quiet quickly dissipates as Boston police enter the home, and the city’s Inspectional Services Department finds a string of violations: structural issues, decaying floors, and frighteningly haphazard electrical wiring.

Ahmed is busy arguing with the inspectors on his stoop when a red Mercedes station wagon pulls up alongside the building. The driver stops and rolls down the window. “It only took you nine years,” he calls out sarcastically. “I used to live in the house next door. I had to move.”

Across the street, Leanora Whitted stands in her driveway, watching as Ahmed is served papers telling him that the city is shutting him down. She says prostitutes used to scream at their johns when they weren’t paid, and “customers” would honk their car horns in the middle of the night, waking her or her children and grandchildren. “We’re disgusted with the activity,” she says. “We’ve heard promises, promises, promises for so long. If this gets taken care of, this neighborhood might have a chance.”

Ahmed’s case is an extreme one, to be sure. The task force doesn’t claim that all of the landlords on the list are running brothels or knowingly harboring drug dealers; if anything, they’re barely around. Nor does it claim that all the residents of the properties are breaking the law. But one thing is for certain: that properties in gross disrepair, with largely transient tenants and absentee owners, breed trouble.

Ahmed’s ramshackle building certainly isn’t the first of its kind in Roxbury. Jane Jacobs, in her iconic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, singled out the neighborhood back in 1961, saying that the crime there would “induce prudent people to stay off the sidewalks at night” and as a result, “it’s become a place to leave.” Jacobs is often portrayed as a civic-minded sociologist happiest when butting heads with authority. But George Kelling, author of the broken-windows theory, says much of his thinking in criminology is indebted to her. “She’s my hero,” he says. “I think there’s a direct line of thinking in how we conceived of the eyes on the street.”

In many ways, the task force is the next step in a more nuanced, intellectualized approach to fighting crime. And even some high-profile critics of its forebear — broken windows — say they see real potential. Harvard sociology professor Robert Sampson, for example, calls the new program “very intriguing.” Not that Sampson says it’s perfect. He and other experts express concern that stationing police cruisers around the clock will exacerbate fears in communities that are already intimidated by cops. They also question just how effective a landlord can actually be at identifying criminal activity. Finally, they wonder whether encouraging property owners to be hypervigilant will wind up making law-abiding tenants feel as though they’re under surveillance.

Still, Sampson says he’s comforted by the city’s extensive use of data. And, he says, demonstrating that there are real-life consequences for landlords’ actions can create an awareness that property ownership means something larger than just shoveling the sidewalks while cocaine dealers move blow out of your units. When you’re a good neighbor, other neighbors take notice, and it creates a sense of collective efficacy, Sampson says, a notion that you can tackle problems together. So while the task force’s emphasis on landlords will play an important role, it stands to reason that the community must accept and embrace the program in order for anything to really change.

 

To the city, it’s obvious where to place the blame for problem buildings. “As a responsible landlord, you know what’s going on in your property,” Menino said in July at the press conference introducing the task force. Menino used the occasion to single out Edward Franco, who owns that house at 102 Blue Hill Avenue that was the recipient of the flashing sign. “This guy’s totally irresponsible,” Menino said. “A hundred and five [police] calls? That’s wrong.”

After the press conference, Franco became the city’s poster child for absentee landlords. Newspapers flashed his name across their pages, and police investigated violations at his 16 other buildings around the city, collectively valued at more than $6 million. Since his public flogging, Franco’s been working with the police to ensure that his drug-dealing tenants have been removed and that his other buildings stay off their radar. “It was quite embarrassing, to say the least,” he says of all the attention.

Like many landlords, Franco sees problem buildings as an issue with no real solution. Crime in troubled neighborhoods, he says, is beyond his control. “A large part of the Dorchester and Roxbury area is always problematic. Today it’s 102 Blue Hill [Avenue], next summer it might be a building on Bragdon Street or Washington Street. It’s musical chairs here. There are always problems in the inner city for a variety of reasons.”

Franco insists he was unaware of the number of police calls to his property, and didn’t know the police department posted online crime reports. According to a police spokesperson, however, officers contact landlords whenever an incident occurs in or around their property. That landlords so often fail to take action, the spokesperson said, is a large reason why the task force exists.

Local landlord associations have publicly supported the task force, recognizing that one rotten landlord can give them all a bad name. But privately, they say Menino’s been struggling to deal with problem tenants for years, and point to a series of his initiatives that haven’t been enforced. There were the Green Ticket laws meant to go after building owners who failed to remove trash and snow. The limit of four students to an apartment was supposed to curb noise. And the rental reinspection ordinance promised that recently vacated apartments would be held to city standards.

Many landlords don’t feel they should shoulder the blame for their tenants’ behavior, particularly when occupants who destroy property or refuse to pay rent can make the property owner’s life a living hell. “We’re an easily vilified group,” says Skip Schloming, the head of Small Property Owners of America, an association based in Cambridge.

Instead of cracking down on landlords, he says, the city should push for stronger state laws to ensure that landlords have more recourse when it comes to dealing with difficult tenants. “The problem-properties legislation that the city passed is an open declaration to the public that our police and our noise ordinances are not working,” Schloming says. “In the case of the problem property, the cost of the [police] details is going to wipe out the income” for the landlords.

Both Schloming’s group and the larger Greater Boston Real Estate Board want a state-level bill passed that would create escrow accounts for instances when tenants have cause for withholding rent. And they want to overhaul the eviction laws in order to speed up the process. If there’s a problem tenant, Schloming asks, will penalizing the owner necessarily translate to results? “Can the city do anything more than a landlord [can] in the present legal environment? They can’t evict tenants any faster.”

But Kathy Brown of the Boston Tenant Coalition says that an effort to change the eviction laws is nothing more than a diversion tactic. “The real estate lobby for years has been trying to change the laws,” she says. Brown dismisses the notion that eviction proceedings take too long to be effective. “The facts say otherwise.” She points to a study conducted by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute that found that 92 percent of evictions go through in 30 days or less.

But Councilor Feeney insists that housing court can be a speed bump for the task force. In the time it takes for an eviction to go through, she says, properties can fester. Some landlords would rather continue dealing with problem tenants whose rent is covered, even if the money may come from illegal activities like drug dealing, than expend time and money going through court proceedings. Feeney hopes to start working with state legislators and the real estate board to get problem-property cases fast-tracked through housing court.

For his part, Franco has installed fences and cameras around the building at 102 Blue Hill Avenue. He’s evicted the tenants from one unit and is trying to oust some from another. He now receives e-mails from the police whenever one of his properties is cited, and he says the communication is helping him better manage his business. Still, he says the city’s attempts to fine landlords like him, or charge them for a police detail, amount to an added tax. “Fining the landlords: It’s like fining the rape victim for being raped,” he says.

That’s not the type of comment that gives landlords a good name.

 

In just a few hours, Darryl Smith is going to shut down Fard Ahmed, the owner of the building that rents out rooms in two- and five-hour blocks. But right now, on a gorgeous afternoon in late August, the assistant commissioner of the city’s Inspectional Services Department is leading a motley group around Roxbury on one of his biweekly walk-throughs with the city’s new Neighborhood Response Team. Today he’s accompanied by several community organizers, Police Captain John Davin, and a group of brand-new teachers from nearby Orchard Gardens K–8 school.

If the Problem Properties Task Force is the city’s last-ditch effort for dealing with troublesome landlords, this response team may be the first line of defense. Their physical presence on the street — talking with residents, following up on complaints, reviewing inspections to see if violations have been fixed — is an attempt to prevent homes from getting onto the task force’s list in the first place. For the past few weeks, Smith has been weaving his way along the side streets of Blue Hill Avenue. Today he stops to check in with a group of women who live beside an empty, rodent-infested lot. “They’re Shaq-sized rats,” they tell him, which is particularly awful given the lot’s proximity to a playground. “For 55 years I’ve been dealing with all the bullshit right here,” says one of the women. “For years I’ve been fighting with Inspectional Services.”

“I understand that a lot of people have done a lot of things wrong for many years,” Smith says calmly. “Hopefully we have a team here who can help you deal with some of those things.”

Smith says his aim isn’t just to crack down on terrible property owners who make life miserable for their neighbors. His goal is help change the community, giving residents a sense of control over their environment.

“It isn’t just about one house,” he says. “It’s also a type of culture that has been able to permeate the neighborhood. We’re trying to help a community that’s struggling with apathy. They feel like they’ve been living in a hostage situation.”

Smith then takes the group over to 102 Blue Hill Avenue, where the building manager, Jerome Frazier, gives Captain Davin an update: The highway sign is gone, the building’s front door is now plastered with “no trespassing” signs, and a huge wooden privacy fence has been erected around the yard. Seeing the group assembled outside, a man in a gray tank top wanders over and starts asking questions in Spanish. An ESL teacher at the elementary school translates: “He lives next door, but his niece lives in the building,” she explains. “Now that the fence is up, he wants to know if he can build a sandbox in the yard for her kids.”

“You’re going to have to talk to the landlord,” Frazier says.

Good fences are said to make good neighbors. But can the city’s new program do the same? Can it produce landlords who are engaged and feel a responsibility to the community? That remains to be seen. The task force, informed and well intentioned as it may be, is only just out of the gate.

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