Lawmakers Push To Ramp Up Fines On Owners Of Boston’s Neglected Properties
Boston real estate is known for its flashy skyscrapers, historical architecture and booming life sciences industry. But not far from the shadow of those tall buildings, scores of properties in the city's historically Black neighborhoods sit vacant or blighted.
In Dorchester and Roxbury, a large number of these properties are being intentionally neglected by absentee landlords or developers waiting for opportunities, city councilors argue. Last month, Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson, whose district includes Roxbury, called for a hearing to reinforce fines on owners who intentionally neglect their properties, and to create more funding for the agencies responsible for holding property owners accountable.
“We have an impossible real estate market right now, but still Boston finds itself with a lot of buildings that are vacant or abandoned or blighted,” City Councilor At-Large Ruthzee Louijeune, who co-sponsored the bill, said at the May 18 meeting.
“This has been going on for years and years," she added. "Sometimes the reason is because speculators are land banking and holding onto land and letting the prices rise while investing nothing and forcing neighbors to live next to properties that are in desperate need of repair.”
Late Mayor Thomas Menino created the Problem Properties task force with an executive order in 2011 to address the number of blighted properties in neighborhoods like Roxbury and issue fines and violations to property owners that didn't comply.
The task force is made up of more than a dozen city department officials including the Boston Police Department, Inspectional Services, Neighborhood Services and the Mayor’s Office of Housing. It investigates properties through complaints it receives from residents and tracks department databases for signs of neglect. The properties are determined to be a problem when there have been at least four valid complaints in the past year that the task force has reviewed. Owners are made aware of the designation and are encouraged to make necessary changes to get off the list.
Although a useful indicator, this list hasn’t been updated since last year and only includes seven properties, two of which are in Roxbury.
The Problem Properties list represents a subset of distressed properties, which include vacant land and city-owned parcels. Boston has 297 distressed properties, according to the city's 2021 Distressed Properties Report, including 142 residential buildings and 75 commercial buildings.
The three-family property at 34 Marcella St. was designated as a problem property in October because of disrepair, overgrown grass and excess trash that lined the yard. The property sold earlier this year and was rehabilitated, according to the Inspectional Services Department, but the property still appears on the list on the task force website.
"Something needs to be done about [these properties]," Fernandes Anderson said. "If we aren't proactive about this, these properties will fester without repair, and induce problems for those who live near and around the distressed locations."
Not all owners of distressed properties are intentionally neglecting their properties. Some can’t afford to get the necessary work done to keep the property up to date. Fernandes Anderson said targeting landlords and management companies that are intentionally neglecting their properties can be somewhat of a challenge because there is no clear difference between the two.
"We need to continue to find ways to find the difference between those two [types of operators],” Louijeune said. "We need to make sure we are uplifting and supporting the neighbors and the neighborhoods to be able to do something about the property that everyone can be proud of."
Roxbury has seen major development move forward, including the transformation of Nubian Square, and two development teams led by HYM and Tishman Speyer are competing to build a mixed-use development on the long-vacant Parcel P3.
Still, Roxbury has 49 distressed properties, the second-most in the city behind Dorchester, according to the 2021 report. Of those 49 properties, 23 are residential, nine are tax-exempt, seven are commercial, five are mixed-use, three are apartments and two are industrial.
The report also highlights the type of owners involved with these distressed properties. Thirty-seven percent of property owners own more than one property and nearly 50% of all properties are owned by some type of LLC, corporation or trust.
Community groups like The Dudley Street Initiative work with Roxbury and Dorchester residents so that landlords and owners are not neglecting property that could benefit the neighborhood. In December, the group, through its Boston Neighborhood Community Land Trust, bought a multifamily property from a landlord trying to force tenants out in Uphams Corner in order to allow the tenants to stay.
“There are some studies that say that stress can affect the property’s value and also affect the quality of life. Obviously, where there’s more concentration, it can also have a more dramatic effect,” said Tim Davis, deputy director for policy development and research of the Mayor’s Office for Housing, who has worked on past Distressed Properties reports.
The problem properties are not just an eyesore for some of these community members. They bring more crime and pose safety hazards as trash piles and the risk of fires becomes a chronic issue, according to the Problem Properties website.
In 2017, a fire broke out at 8 Marie St., at the time a vacant three-family in Dorchester known for having squatters. The fire left $1M in damages to five surrounding properties. The city issued multiple violations to the owner prior to the fire, but nothing was done to make the property safe.
“If a person cannot afford to maintain their property, we should attempt to assist them in that endeavor,” Fernandes Anderson said. “If someone is choosing not to maintain their property, then we should come down on this neglectful owner, and do what we can to fine said owners, and/or see to it that the land is used in a manner conducive to the betterment of the community.”
Fernandes Anderson said the council will hold a meeting soon to work on a plan to hold property owners accountable.
“If you're going to fine people, you need to be able to collect the money. You need to care enough, and have the political will to challenge some well-off landlords,” Fernandes Anderson said. “I don't know a ton about the previous program, but I think that if we are serious about this, and are insistent that these properties need to be improved in one way or another, we can get stuff done.”