City Manager Jay Ash laid out a bold plan to address illegal basement apartments and substandard housing this past week, inviting those who may be most affected by a strengthening of the City’s housing codes to City Hall for a discussion about potential changes.
More than 50 landlords and members of the City Council heard Ash outline problems the City is seeking to overcome and the potential solution: a requirement that every one of the city’s estimated 9,500 rental units be inspected at least once every five years.
“As a community, we continue to be concerned about illegal rooming houses and unsafe apartments, both legal and illegal,” said Ash. “We want to promote healthy and safe living options for residents, and we want to make sure that landlords who are doing things right don’t have their property values and their neighborhoods diminished by others who allow substandard conditions to exist. We also want to better assure the safety of our first responders, who are too often confronted with dangers presented by failing systems and overcrowded conditions. Many residents and city councillors have complained about these issues in the past; we’re preparing to do something about it.”
The meeting saw landlords who owned as few as one unit in a two-family home and landlords who owned as many as 100 units in multiple dwellings, and Ash further explained to them that the current system of ensuring the habitability of rental housing is not working.
“We have an honor system: landlords are supposed to call us when there is a change in the occupancy of a unit to have that unit re-inspected prior to re-renting it,” said Ash. “We’ve estimated that happens somewhere between 10-20 percent of the time, meaning that at least 80 percent of the time the changeover isn’t reported to us. We then have to hunt for clues that a changeover has taken place, which takes far too much time and far too many resources. And, in the end, it still doesn’t get us to a compliance level that ensures the health and safety of our residents and public safety officials.”
Massachusetts law establishes a sanitary code which is meant to ensure minimum habitability standards are met, like working electricity, hot and cold water availability, adequate egress in case of emergency, and the proper amount of livable space per occupant. The City’s current ordinance accepts that sanitary code and requires the notice by landlords each time a unit is about to be rented. The unit then gets inspected, with those units that fail then requiring the necessary repairs to bring the unit up to the minimum code standard before the new occupancy occurs.
“Because landlords are not self-reporting, we are looking at making a unit inspection a time-certain requirement. If a unit has not been inspected within a five-year period, we will schedule it for an inspection,” Ash said of his plan.
In a study area of the Shurtleff/Bellingham neighborhood, Ash said the City has estimated that less than 30 percent of the rental units have been inspected over a five-year period. That, despite an estimate that units turn over an average of every two years.
“When units aren’t inspected, many can fall into disrepair. Additionally, without the inspection, some landlords and even their tenants try to cram people into apartments, basements and attics. Those situations put people’s lives into jeopardy, and create bad situations in our neighborhoods,” said Ash.
After Ash’s presentation, landlords were encouraged to ask questions and offer their opinions.
Some tepid support was offered, with others reserving their opinions while hearing answers to questions. Ash explained, for example, that the $50 fee for an inspection, which is the same as it is under the current ordinance, would go to help pay for the two additional housing inspectors and other support staff needed to carry out the program. He said that it is very unlikely that all 9,500 units would be inspected in the first year. Although he said that there were no exemptions for rental units requiring inspections, he did note that owner-occupied units would not be subject to the program.
Most significantly, Ash did say that tenants also shared in the responsibility for ensuring that a unit passed inspection.
“The state sanitary code does require tenants to keep their units clean and uncluttered, so tenants have responsibility of not placing bookcases in front of means of egress and not allowing for grease build-ups in stoves that could create a fire,” Ash said. “We’ll work with landlords and their tenants, and our inspections could actually help both have better relationships.”
Ash reiterated that a unit that was being inspected for occupancy would then have a new five year timeline set. He did state that landlords could be fined if they did not cooperate and, in what he thought would be a rare occurrence, the police could be called to help the landlord and the City inspector gain access to a unit being denied inspection by a tenant.
“We’re trying to make units safer and address overcrowding. If a tenant isn’t being cooperative, that may be a signal that something is going on that we should actually be looking at,” speculated Ash, who added that tenants have the right to be present for an inspection, while landlords or their representatives would be required to attend.
The final ordinance update is still being drafted.
Ash said that he already had some constructive feedback which caused him to add more responsibility for tenant cooperation, and he would welcome more. A summary of the proposed ordinance can be found at www.chelseama.gov. While the legislation is a priority, he said the City was taking its time to make sure that everything was being considered and addressed.
“We want to reserve time for thoughtful comment and consideration, and then have ample time to do public education around the issues,” Ash said. “For some landlords, for example, they may not be aware that they have a current reporting requirement. So, we’ll take our time, get it right, talk to all about what will be new, train those who need to be trained and then set out to make safer and healthier our rental housing and our neighborhoods.”