Council Proceeding Carefully on Inspection Proposal

A newly proposed program that would require inspections of housing units every five years by the City’s Code Enforcement is getting a lukewarm welcome at the Council, as many councillors are trying to balance the competing ideas of correcting substandard housing with residents’s private property rights.

The plan was proposed last summer, but was introduced at Council Monday night. It is expected to get a Conference Committee hearing later this month, but that has not been set in stone yet.

The City is looking to correct the problem of substandard living conditions in some parts of the City – particularly with absentee landlords. There are no shortage of reports from the Fire Department and Code Inspectors of three-bedroom apartments with locks on every bedroom and separate families living in each room.

Councillor Leo Robinson, who hasn’t made up his mind yet, argued that a recent fire at a triple decker reportedly displaced way too many people, and such conditions are all over the City.

“There’s a public safety problem to consider here,” he said. “The recent triple decker fire we had displaced 63 people out of a three unit building. There are some things you have to be concerned about. You have families of five staying in one room.”

Other stories reiterated by those around the City entail one woman recently who reportedly had a Section 8 subsidized apartment and after an inspection was found to be renting out several rooms in the apartment while she was living permanently in Puerto Rico.

That said, the potential problem is that the City cannot pick and choose where to go; they would go to every housing unit and they would not only note substandard conditions, but also repairs that need to be made or pest control issues. Such notations, if not fixed in the proper amount of time, could result in fines of up to $300 per day.

Some councillors are quite concerned that law-abiding residents who might need to do some repairs to their homes, but may not be able to afford those repairs immediately, could get swept up in the program – potentially accruing large fines and having liens put on their homes.

Councillors Paula Barton and Giovanni Recupero had some major concerns about the program right off the bat.

Recupero is concerned that elderly residents with homes in need of a few repairs could lose their homes to the City due to unpaid fines and liens. He said he is concerned about inspectors nosing around homes and finding costly problems that would burden and endanger homeowners who are low-income or on fixed incomes.

Barton shared those concerns.

Council President Matt Frank said he was also a little wary of the program, and he has some questions about it before he can fully support it.

“I’m not really pushing that plan yet,” he said. “I also have a lot of questions on it. While the 10-point plan and the casino agreement were things I’ve pushed, this is one I’m taking a wait and see approach on.

“I have a lot of family members and friends who own three-deckers and rent apartments to relatives at lower rates,” he continued. “I would be concerned about the fabric of our community if they can’t do that anymore…On the balance, we’ve all seen apartments in Chelsea that people should not be living in and there are some serious safety concerns in these units. The thing is that you can’t selectively enforce. You can’t go into this house because Matt Frank doesn’t like the owners. That’s very Chelsea 1976. You have to go into everyone’s house or no houses.”

Councillor Joe Perlatonda said he is also lukewarm on the idea, saying the two newly hired inspectors who would be charged with looking over units might go too far.

“These inspections used to be checking the smoke detectors and making sure the water worked and the heat worked,” he said. “Now they want to go in and check everything – plumbing, electrical, pest control and structural damage. If a guy – especially an older guy – has a porch that is falling down, are they going to cite that and fine him $300 a day even if he doesn’t have the money to fix it right away. Is this something where homeowners could potentially lose their homes to the City, and then the City turns around and gives it to The Neighborhood Developers or some other organization to redevelop? That’s a concern I think a lot of us have.”

The initial target area for the program would be in the Shurtleff, Bellingham, Shawmut and Grove Street areas, but would eventually be in effect all over the City.

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