In a contentious issue that concluded with a happy ending, the City Council on Monday night took a huge step in potentially ending the problem of illegal rooming houses and substandard apartments.
By a vote of 10-1, the Council approved the ordinance that would require landlords to have a City code enforcement inspection of their units every five years. Any basic deficiencies would have to be corrected before a unit could be deemed ok for rental. A friendly amendment by Councillor Giovanni Recupero called for iron-clad language that would protect owner-occupants from any such intrusive inspections, as many on the Council were initially wary of the plan due to personal property rights.
“I think the City did a very good job of meeting our requests and making sure everybody was happy,” said Council President Matt Frank.
The ordinance could end up going a long way to making Chelsea a much different place in terms of the condition of all the city’s rental units. While a great deal of the city is now on the upswing, some areas continue to be plagued by seriously substandard living conditions. Stories of emergency personnel finding families living in closets and babies in cribs next to a boiler in the basement are all too common; likewise, certain parts of Chelsea serve as a clearinghouse for renters who are on the fringes and will take anything with a roof – even if the living unit is far below basic standards.
Such inspections – especially on properties owned by absentee landlords – could put a major dent in the above problems.
Councillor Dan Cortell emerged as one of the biggest advocates of the plan – which first was proposed by the administration last year. He said it simply put teeth in an existing ordinance that many landlords were ignoring.
“It’s not landlord unfriendly; it’s a renter rights ordinance,” he said. “Everyone deserves to move into a unit that has a certificate assuring them that it meets basic habitable standards…Chelsea is a place, admittedly, that many people come to with $500 cash in their pocket and look to live anywhere in any condition. Those people are the exact people who need the most protections. They might be afraid to go to court or may not have another place they can move to.
“Chelsea has the issues we have regarding absentee landlords and owners because the existing ordinance was hard to enforce,” he continued. “You don’t know if people are breaking the law until you get in the unit. When you get in and see exterior locks on the doors and five people living in a unit where none of them are related, then you know you have an illegal rooming house to deal with.”
Frank said he was not supportive of the plan at first, but was won over recently when he saw pictures of some of the living conditions that City inspectors have found.
“I was oscillating on the issue and the turning point for me was seeing pictures of what some of these illegal units looked like,” he said. “Some people here are living in squalor…Apparently not every landlord in the City has respect for their tenants and we need to make sure everyone is living in units that are up to the basic, minimum standards. You have to have hot water; you have to have heat. You can’t have babies next to the boiler or holes in the ceilings.”
Recupero said he was pleased to see the ordinance pass with his amendment, noting that he agreed with the policy but wanted to be assured that the City wouldn’t overstep its authority one day. He said he didn’t want to see inspectors going into the homes of elderly owner-occupants and writing them expensive tickets.
“I’m on board with this,” he said. “The amendment was the protection that I was looking to get for the people – the common man.”
The lone vote against the measure came from Councillor Joe Perlatonda.
The five-year inspection would come with a $50 fee.