'Horrible Conditions:' Boston Cracks Down On Problem Property

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You know how you get annoyed with that neighbor who chronically doesn't mow the lawn or paint the peeling house? You feel like it's bringing down the neighborhood.

In the heart of this city, problem neighbors sometimes exist on a whole different scale.

"This is pretty filthy, as you can see. And so be careful as you touch things," Darryl Smith, assistant commissioner at Boston's Inspectional Services Department, tells us as we tour with him.

With that warning, we climb the steps to the back porch of 318 Blue Hill Ave. in Dorchester, suddenly reluctant to grab the handrail. When we get to the landing, we see why we were warned. It's covered with dog poop. Some of it seems to have fallen between the slats from the second-floor porch above. There's so much of it, it's pretty impossible to avoid stepping in it. We're on the back porch because it's the only way into the basement of this house.

"There is a pretty bad step there, so you have to be very, very cautious on the step," Smith says.

Really there is no step. It caved in, and you have to jump over it. It is a problem property.

"This is not the way to live. And if the landlord’s not doing his job, then he needs to be punished for it.”

Tenant Yulonne Bresnihan

Smith is leading what's called a Neighborhood Response Team. It's more like a SWAT team of Boston building inspectors, police officers, firefighters and others cracking down on what are termed "quality of life" crimes. We asked to go on a raid after the team recently shut down an alleged brothel in Roxbury.

On this morning, the group swooped in on this property in the Grove Hall section of Dorchester, where city workers say they've been battling illegal activity and a negligent landlord for a decade.

Smith leads us to the basement, into what he calls an illegal apartment "that we condemned several months ago, only to find today that we had people sleeping in here. It was a young kid, about 13 years old, so we had to contact his parent."

It's unclear if they boy is staying here, or just crashing on this day. But there's junk strewn everywhere. There are no smoke or carbon monoxide detectors. City workers admit they closed the bathroom door because they didn't want us to see the overflowed, clogged, smelly toilet.

"It's horrible conditions for anyone to live in," Smith says.

Outside the building, the mother of the 13-year-old has arrived. She and her relatives get angry as police try to interview them.

"She can't go through this! DSS [Department of Social Services]? Who wants DSS in their life?" one of them screams.

The mother and son start to leave, not eager to talk about why the boy was here in the middle of a school day.

The boy's cousin, Chuck Ross, is pacing the sidewalk out front. He says he knew the teen was hanging out here, and confides that he's had suspicions about the place.

"I always like come right here, see like little like crackheads and stuff," Ross says. "I thought it was like a crackhead building or something."

Smith confirms that. "There are complaints about drug dealing, about prostitution," he says. "I was here a week ago. You could just see all the activity starting at 10 o'clock, and [it] went on throughout the night."

On this day, police find the building's owner, Gerald Matthews, on the property — his bad luck, as he's arrested on a contempt warrant for failing to correct code violations the city cited previously. He declines our request for an interview as police stuff him in a cruiser.

"Leave me alone," Matthews says, then he tells an officer to close the cruiser door.

A few steps away, there's an empty lot where Matthews allegedly ran an illegal garbage transfer station — dumping trash, then hauling it away. The city actually put up jersey barriers to prevent him from taking dumpsters in and out. Apparently it hasn't quite stopped him, as on this day police tell us they found a U-Haul truck he rented, loaded with garbage, parked on the curb next to the lot.

"He just is a horrible neighbor," Smith says. "The epitome of a horrible neighbor."

And a horrible landlord, says 21-year-old tenant Yulonne Bresnihan, who with roommates pays over $1,000 a month to rent the second floor, where doors are missing from rooms and kitchen cabinets, and wires hang from electrical boxes.

"This is not the way to live," Bresnihan says. "And if the landlord's not doing his job, then he needs to be punished for it."

We ask Smith if Matthews should be allowed to be a landlord.

"Based on his previous behavior, I would say no. He should get out of the business," Smith answers. But can he be stopped if there's no city ordinance or state law that can stop him from being a landlord? Smith laments that with Matthews, it's like "being on a treadmill. You keep chasing him around."

Ironically, right next door are the offices of Project Right, one of the many neighborhood associations also working to tackle quality of life problems in Grove Hall.

"There's a lot of really good residents who've lived here 30 to 50 years," says Michael Kozu, a Project Right community coordinator. "There's a lot of new residents who are coming in who are trying to make a difference. We also have these spots that can just bring down a whole street."

City officials say there are dozens of problem properties like this one. Smith says they'll keep cracking down on them, and they'll be back at this property.

"We're gonna stay on it," Smith says. "I mean, this isn't something that we came out, we wrote a violation, and we're going away. We ain't going anywhere."

This program aired on October 25, 2011.


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