In many communities, the inspectional services department doesn’t get a lot of attention when it comes to budget hearings.
But that’s not the case in Chelsea, where the majority of residents are renters, many of whom face trash, rodent, and landlord issues.
At last week’s City Council subcommittee budget hearings, a number of residents attended carrying signs with photos of mice, rats, and other rodents they’ve found in and out of their units.
During the hearing, inspectional services director Mike McAteer and City Manager Thomas Ambrosino highlighted the challenges the inspectional services department faces, and the new personnel outlined in the Fiscal Year 2023 budget.
Ambrosino is proposing one new housing inspector for the department, as well as moving a floater position in City Hall to the department as a clerical assistant.
Ambrosino also touched upon the increased budget for rat baiting in the city, which is included under the Department of Public Works’ streets and sidewalks budget.
“I would be remiss not to mention the Chelsea tenants group that is here today,” said McAteer. “There has been a lot of activity with housing and trash and rats. Two years ago I was here and I remember telling you we had five complaints; this year already we have had over 100.”
One of the reasons the department needs an additional housing inspector, bringing its total to five, is because of the increased call for inspections by rental tenants.
“It’s not something where once you do an inspection, it goes away,” McAteer said. “It’s a lot of work, a lot of phone calls, fines, and court action. It just goes on and on; it’s a lot of work and it is time consuming.”
Councilor-At-Large Damali Vidot asked why the number of complaints has gone up over the past two years, adding that there have likely always been issues.
“Two years ago, people were very happy to have an apartment in Chelsea, prices were through the roof and (people) were not complaining when they had an apartment,” said McAteer. “Sure, there were a lot of violations back then, but now, times are tougher, some people are getting evicted and there are new property owners in the city.”
McAteer added that there is also an advisory group looking out for the tenants and making sure there are more calls made to inspectional services where there is an issue.
Vidot asked what the city could do to deal with property owners who are not responding to code violations and how they can be held responsible.
“It really is an enforcement issue,” said Ambrosino. “It is a matter of staying on top of these locations where there is a particular developer who we know is not always the most responsive, and staying on top issuing fines, which we do.”
Outside of the typical enforcement avenues, Ambrosino said there is not a lot a city can do to prevent someone from buying property on the open market.
If a developer or property owner does not pay the fines, they can be taken to court, but Ambrosino said it is a lengthy process, especially with the backup in the housing courts due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Council President Roy Avellaneda asked if the inspectional services department can force apartments to be vacated if there are serious code violations.
“The Board of Health can condemn an apartment, but my department really can’t,” said McAteer. “If it’s unsafe, we can’t tell the tenant to leave, but we can order the landlord to vacate the tenant, and that’s a slippery slope, too.”
District 5 Councilor Judith Garcia asked what the procedure is for the city to bait for rats, and for residents to file complaints.
Ambrosino said the city contracts the rodent baiting to B&B Pest Control. The line item for the contract is in the DPW budget, but Ambrosino said residents can call inspectional services with a rat complaint.
If the rat is inside the property, inspectional services will inspect the property. If it is outside, the city offers free rat baiting for all residences of six or fewer units.
Ambrosino said the budget for rat baiting is being significantly increased to $120,000 in the FY23 budget because of the need in the city.
On the overall inspectional services budget, District 1 Councilor Todd Taylor said he believes it is one of the departments in the city that could benefit from adding more personnel. Ambrosino said it is possible he could make a recommendation to expand the department further either in FY23 or in the proposed FY24 budget.
“You would have my support to try to solve these problems and allocate the resources necessary to get the job done,” said Taylor.