Absentee Landlords

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

By Janelle Nanos | Boston Magazine |
Landlords who own houses like 30 Ridgewood Street in Dorchester have drawn the city's ire.                         Photograph by Scott M. Lacey

Landlords who own houses like 30 Ridgewood Street in Dorchester have drawn the city’s ire. Photograph by Scott M. Lacey

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.

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.

CompStat is the system the police department uses to track crime hot spots and patterns throughout the city. Every two weeks, this meeting gives officers a state-of-the-city crime snapshot — the latest gang activity, homicide reports, and the like. And from now on, Davis tells the room, there’s something else to keep track of: Boston’s problem properties. Starting today, captains in each district will be required to deliver reports on the homes that are wreaking havoc in neighborhoods.

A young office assistant pulls down a screen, and images of rundown three-deckers in neighborhoods like Dorchester, East Boston, and Roxbury flash across the wall as the captains begin rattling off each property’s rap sheet. First up is 576–580 Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury, where officers say they found drug paraphernalia, buckets filled with urine, huge sections of collapsed ceiling, mattresses on the floor, and sheets hanging from the ceiling to create makeshift walls. After the photo presentation, the conversation shifts to the domestic violence calls from a home on Inwood Street in Dorchester, where police also suspect drug dealing is taking place, and the fatal triple shooting on July 4 at 34 Norton Street. These are the kinds of problems that force a mother and her kids to cross the street while on their way to the grocery store, or cause a neighbor to worry that simply sitting on the porch could be seen as cause for retribution in the eyes of a drug-addled gang member.

“These properties can disrupt the livelihood of the neighborhood,” says Silvia Domínquez, a Northeastern University professor who studies social networks in public housing. “The more dilapidated that a community or dwelling becomes, the more disorder it creates. It lowers the standard of living.”

In many ways, the troubled-properties program has roots in another Boston-bred strategic crime-fighting initiative, one that helped revolutionize American law enforcement three decades ago. The broken-windows theory — documented by George Kelling and James Wilson in a seminal 1982 article in The Atlantic — posits that focusing on smaller quality-of-life nuisances like broken windows in unkempt homes can help to restore a sense of order in crime-ridden neighborhoods. William Bratton, Boston’s head of transit police, put the theory to the test on the T, proactively targeting instances of smaller — some would say petty — infractions like fare jumping and graffiti. The T experienced a 27 percent crime reduction in a three-year span.

Bratton’s efforts caught the attention of Rudy Giuliani, who began citing broken windows in stump speeches in his campaign for mayor of New York City. Giuliani recruited Bratton to move south, where he oversaw a steep drop in crime as commissioner of the New York City Police Department. Some observers now believe that shifting demographics and national trends also played a large role in New York’s success, and they argue that the broken-windows approach encourages racial profiling. But Giuliani and Bratton continue to ardently support the theory, perhaps because it catapulted them both into the national spotlight (one that hasn’t faded — Bratton was a candidate this summer for the job of running London’s Metropolitan Police, and Giuliani, well, he never seems to go away). Even today, the broken-windows theory may be the only criminal-justice principle that’s a household name.

Michael Kineavy, Menino’s chief of policy and planning and the chair of the Problem Properties Task Force, acknowledges the link between broken windows and the city’s landlord program. (Actually, so does nearly every official who discusses the task force.) But Kineavy says the reliance on data collection by both the city and the police is a new tactic for identifying problem spots. “The data mining piece of this is huge,” he says, “and Devin’s the data junkie.”

Devin Lyons-Quirk heads up Boston About Results, City Hall’s auditing department, which makes him the Bill James of problem properties around here. Like the Red Sox stats guru, Lyons-Quirk is adept at slogging through data to produce nuggets of actionable insight that might otherwise have been lost in a sea of seemingly unrelated numbers. (James, by the way, has recently taken to dabbling in criminology himself, this year releasing a book called Popular Crime.) Just out of the Kennedy School at Harvard, Lyons-Quirk has the job of taking the myriad info-chunks and trying to make sense of them all.

After the police department identifies problem properties using CompStat, Lyons-Quirk runs the addresses through city databases. He looks for things like whether the landlords have paid their taxes, if the buildings in question have had code or noise violations, if the addresses have been cited on the city’s complaint hotline, or if they were targeted by neighborhood watch groups. Meanwhile, the police department reviews incident reports and assembles dossiers about the building owners and their tenants, including any criminal activity or gang affiliations. The resulting document becomes the rap sheet for the property, and if there are enough violations, the city can move in to hold the landlord accountable. What’s remarkable, says Kineavy, is that the system enables the city to both track where problems currently exist and predict where they may later arise.

Once targeted, property owners have the opportunity to work with the task force before any fees are imposed. But city officials and the police say that the prospect of fines has already sent shady landlords scurrying. The owner of the urine-soaked property at 576–580 Blue Hill Avenue, after hearing about the potential penalties, approached the cops about cleaning up his act. Says Police Commissioner Davis: “It’s scaring the hell out of them.”

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.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2011/09/targeting-absentee-landlords-for-their-problem-properties/