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Globe Editor: ‘Astonishing Number’ Of Hazards Found In Off-Campus Student Housing

BOSTON — A new report finds housing overcrowding laws are regularly disregarded in Boston neighborhoods dominated by college students with many students living in illegal and unregulated apartments.

It’s a Boston Globe investigation that found just a fraction of rental units were actually inspected by the city last year. It also found not one overcrowding citation was issued to a landlord last year for violating a law limiting apartments to four undergraduates.

The report comes a year after a fire in Allston killed Binland Lee, a Boston University student living in an overcrowded apartment.

Thomas Farragher, editor of The Boston Globe Spotlight Team, joined WBUR’s Morning Edition to discuss the report.

Bob Oakes: Let me ask you this: overcrowding, there’s the law on the books that limits rental units to no more than four undergraduates, but the Globe investigation makes it seem as if to say no one is paying that law any attention. Is that the feeling you were left with in this investigation?

Thomas Farragher: There really is no doubt about it, Bob. We spoke to nearly 300 college students and then we did additional reporting beyond that, and this has got to be the most widely ignored law in Boston. Nobody’s paying attention to it. The city’s not enforcing it. The landlords are exploiting their young tenants, and the tenants are taking advantage of it because they save money by cramming more kids into these units.

And you point out in the piece that rental agents are willing and frequently disregard the no-more-than-four law and told your investigators it’s OK to stuff more people in.

Absolutely. Our reporters went into rental agencies around the city and invariably they said, “Sure, we’ll get four of you on the lease and then the rest of you will be off the lease and just keep it quiet. It’s between us.” It’s a conspiracy of economics here. The landlords get to make more money and the students get to get a break on their rent.

Overcrowding was one issue, but the report also finds that in the college neighborhoods, Allston, Brighton, Mission Hill, Fenway, have a far higher rate of health and safety complaints as well. How serious are those issues?

Well they’re pretty serious. I mean we hired a housing inspector for this project [who] went with us to rental units in the city and in the course of just a very short afternoon she found 50 violations. We went to a house in Allston where there were two ways out of that house. One of the ways was blocked by a 2-by-4 and it was through a bathroom, and that’s illegal.

Our consultant said the people in that house are not safe, and we found that throughout the city. Our survey shows that there is an astonishing number of health and safety hazards in student housing in Boston today.

What’s the response from the city so far on this?

It’s Monday morning; we haven’t heard anything from the city yet. We spent quite a bit of time with the Inspectional Services Department. They were very professional and patient and answered a lot of our questions, but at the end of the day it’s clear, and I think–I don’t think; I know–Inspectional Services will acknowledge they are not enforcing this. They say there are many hurdles to that. They say in some cases they need administrative search warrants to get into these places but they’re not looking. And the students know that this is happening in plain sight, and all the major players know about it.

Colleges are, of course, one of those major players. What’s the response from colleges and universities to this?

Well after the fire last April that killed Binland Lee, some community activists, namely Val Frias at the Allston Brighton Community Development Corporation, called on the city to ask the colleges to disclose their off-campus student addresses. Now they can do that. We’ve checked with the federal government. There’s a stipulation. There are privacy concerns, of course, but there’s a way to get around that… The colleges can disclose it. And in fact Boston University has done that. They’ve given the addresses to the city, and the city has yet to even look at those lists. So they’re on a silver platter. One university has given to Boston: here’s the list of our students living off campus. Nothing’s been done about that. Other universities have refused so far to comply with the city’s request. Again, they’re citing privacy concerns.

I was kind of shocked, and maybe even a bit amused, by a response from a Boston College official to a question about how 12 students are living in one apartment near the BC campus when this BC official said that he was shocked to find that out. It sounded so Casablanca, movie-like, you know, with the police inspector shocked that gambling is going on in his city even though he’s standing right in the establishment. The colleges know this is going on.

They would have to be blind not to know this is going on. It’s happening right under their noses.

These are called shadow campuses in your series. How are they affecting neighborhoods, these overcrowded housing units in residential neighborhoods?

Well it really is a black market of residential housing. The economic engine of these neighborhood is now dependent on the high rents that the landlords can extract from their student renters. There are houses in Mission Hill, in Allston and Brighton that are going for well over $1 million. They are commanding these astonishing prices. And the reason they are commanding these astonishing prices is not because they’re mansions on a hill somewhere. It’s because they’re right smack-dab in the middle of student neighborhoods, and the landlords know if they buy these houses they can cram kids in, they can get $750 to $1,000 a month from each of the kids and it becomes a gold mine.

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