Absentee Landlords

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

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.”