Legislative panel to get city’s plan on troubled properties

By Rachel Zarrell and Stephen Kurkjian

The residences shown below, all located in police districts C-11, B-2 or B-3, are among the most well known addresses in the city for Boston Police. In a single year these homes have been the subject of anywhere from seven to 25 emergency calls each, for incidents ranging from alleged drug activity, to assault and battery and breaking and entering, according to police reports from the last 12-18 months obtained by the Reporter and Watchdog New England.

There are several factors that the city of Boston’s newly established Problem Properties Task Force weighs to determine if a residence is a “problem property,” such as whether there is an absentee landlord, if the structure is “run down” and inspectional services violations. The Reporter team looked at residences with at least eight incidents, because that is the treshhold that city officials have set in a proposed new policy that would fine landlords to pay for police cruisers to be stationed outside their building.

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

Click on a photo in the slideshow above for detailed information about each property.

This is the final segment of a two-part investigation into Dorchester and Mattapan’s biggest “problem properties” and the City of Boston’s proposed response.

Council panel to review plans on troubled properties

Correction: An earlier version of this article, “Legislative panel to get city’s plan on troubled properties,” incorrectly said that a State House committee will hear testimony from top members of the Menino Administration on its plans for confronting absentee landlords next week. In fact, the Tuesday hearing will be before the City Council’s Committee on Government Operations chaired by Councillor Feeney. The hearing will include proposals from both the Menino Administration and from Councillors Feeney and Ross, and will be on July 6 at 1 p.m. The Reporter regrets its error.

The Menino Administration is seeking legislative approval to advance its crackdown on landlords whose properties have drawn a constant stream of police calls. Next week, a State House committee will hear testimony from top members of the Menino Administration who want to expand the legal definition of a “public nuisance” to cover any property where the Boston Police have had to respond to a 911 call regarding serious crime on four occasions during the prior year.

Under the city’s proposal, the landlord would be subject to a $300 fine for every occasion that a property is designated a public nuisance. Additionally, if the address is the site of eight or more serious police calls in a given year, the property owner would be assessed the cost of the police responses. A separate provision in the proposal would allow for such fines levied on landlords whose properties are cited for four or more sustained violations by the city’s Inspectional Services Department in one year’s time.

The hearing before the Joint Committee for Government Operations is scheduled for July 6, according to Dot Joyce, Menino’s spokeswoman.

In presenting the proposal last month to the Boston City Council, which also must approve the measure, Menino described its aim this way: “The purpose of this amendment is to empower the city to police properties that exhibit an elevated and notorious atmosphere or criminal and other disturbing activity rising to such a level as to endanger the common good and general welfare of a specific neighborhood or the city in general.”

Greg Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, said the board’s members who are landlords plan to testify at the hearings to try to make the “problem properties legislation” as fair as possible, “something that makes sense for the owner/landlord community.”

Vasil wants to “make sure the number of calls that trip the trigger [for fines] make sense for the actual size of the property owned,” giving as an example landlords who own 50- or 100-unit buildings where 911 calls may be a frequent occurrence. “Before you know it you may have eight police calls on the property, but it may be 50 or 100 units, and in reality that’s really not a lot compared to the actual size,” he said.

“We understand the city saying they definitely want to make landlords responsible, and I think a lot of the properties that they’re looking at are smaller properties, three families, four families, six families maybe, and some of the units our members own are larger buildings. So we want to make sure when you own a larger building… that if you have a high number of police calls over time that it’s counted properly,” Vasil said.

Menino’s initiative to crack down on properties that trigger multiple police calls began after a May 7 shooting on the platform of the Savin Hill MBTA station that resulted in the death of 19-year-old Derek Matulina, who was born and raised in the neighborhood. Initially the media reported that the alleged assailant – or witnesses to the crime – had fled into a nearby three-decker at 47-49 Savin Hill Ave.

While police now doubt that the address served as a hiding place for the alleged killer, it was not surprising that those familiar with the neighborhood would find such reports credible. The property has long been in physical decline, and community and City Hall tolerance to that decline had allowed the six-family house to become a hangout for neighborhood toughs, if not a breeding ground for crime.

Following an emotional community meeting that was attended by Derek Matulina’s father and sister, the administration assembled a task force of city department heads to find a way of striking at those properties — and their owners — that generate a steady stream of police calls.

An initial review of police data showed that more than a dozen properties in the Dorchester and Mattapan neighborhoods were responsible for 20 calls or more between May 2010 and May 2011. In interviews with the Dorchester Reporter, some landlords whose properties generated numerous police calls complained about the laws concerning landlord-tenant issues and said that the city should seek to make it easier for them to evict tenants who are responsible for the calls.

Asked about recommending changes to make it easier to evict problem tenants, Menino spokeswoman Joyce said: “This legislation is aimed at absentee landlords who look the other way when presented with problems at their property with either tenants’ violent/illegal behavior or cleanliness issues.”

Read part one of this story.

This story was produced through the Watchdog New England-Dorchester Reporter partnership. View the original story on Dorchester Reporter’s website.

Cambridge food inspectors alone in lacking power to fine

By Gal Tziperman Lotan

Upstairs on the Square

The co-proprietor of Upstairs on the Square, an oft-praised Harvard Square restaurant, says she appreciates food inspectors’ persistence in doing their jobs, even when the restaurant’s diligence fails and they find violations. (Photo: Gal Tziperman Lotan)

Mary Cleavers, a city food inspector, walked into Upstairs on the Square, the oft-praised Harvard Square restaurant, for a routine inspection Nov. 17. She passed the dining room, with its animal print carpets and menus featuring such dishes as $28 pork loin and $32 charcoal-grilled sirloin, and entered the kitchen.

There she found drain flies, dirty floors, wet clutter on the bar floor and a bowl of rusty water under the sink, according to inspection reports obtained by Cambridge Day. None of these violations are classified as “critical” by the city’s inspectional standards — not like, say, expired food or cooks touching food with bare, unwashed hands. But the restaurant still needed to correct them to comply with the state Food Code.

Cleavers noted the violations in her report and submitted copies to the restaurant and the city’s Inspectional Services Department. Three days later, she returned for a re-inspection and found that not only were the violations unremedied, but three new minor ones had sprung up. It took a third visit, on Dec. 7, for the violations to be corrected.

Mary-Catherine Deibel, the restaurant’s co-proprietor, did not contest the inspector’s findings, and in fact said she appreciated that inspectors were persistent in how they do their jobs. “We try to be very clean,” she said in an interview. “But it’s a busy restaurant. We’re almost like a small hotel — though that’s no excuse … It should be swept, and it should be perfect all the time. That is what we aim for as owners. Over 30 years, we’ve had a really good record.”

Faced with repeat offenses, the three restaurant inspectors charged with making sure the city’s 630 eating establishments are up to code have only one weapon to force improvements: threatening to revoke a restaurant’s permit for an afternoon, a day or as long as it takes to fix the problems.

The added sanction of recommending fines against problem restaurants, which is available to food inspectors in all neighboring communities, doesn’t exist in Cambridge.

And Cambridge inspectors rarely, if ever, shutter restaurants, according to Kristen Fernandes, a Cambridge food inspector for 10 years. Fernandes said she could not recall any forced shutdowns mandated by Inspectional Services during her years on the job. Boston, by comparison, has temporarily suspended 275 permits since 2008.

It isn’t just that Cambridge inspectors have fewer sanctions. There are comparatively fewer of them to handle the workload. Fernandes and her two colleagues inspect 630 establishments every six months — about 210 per person — a heavier burden than that of inspectors in surrounding cities. Watertown’s inspectors, who also deal with housing, nuisance and other complaints, inspect just 57 restaurants every six months. In Newton, each inspector visits 133 restaurants twice a year. Even in Boston, where inspectors have 3,500 establishments to worry about, the individual burden is lower — 194 twice a year.

Fees to get a restaurant permit in Cambridge are significantly lower than in Boston: Cambridge eateries must pay Inspectional Services just $25 a year ($50 if the restaurant serves alcohol) plus 75 cents per seat. Across the river, restaurants pay Boston’s Inspectional Services Department $200 a year, plus another dollar for every seat over 100 seats. Boston restaurants that offer takeout must fork over an additional $200 to $1,200 a year — the more money a restaurant makes, the higher the fee.

Charging higher fees could allow Cambridge to hire more inspectors, but would not give these inspectors more power when dealing with repeat offenders.

Officials are noncommital

Cambridge city officials who oversee Inspectional Services were noncommittal on the need to beef up the number and resources of food inspectors. Inspectional Services Commissioner Ranjit Singanayagam referred questions to City Manager Robert W. Healy Jr., who sent them to the city’s Law Department. Two and a half weeks after the initial inquiry, Singanayagam e-mailed a brief statement suggesting the city would study the issue of allowing inspectors to fine problem restaurants.

“The city is always interested in exploring practices that may help to improve compliance with regulations or ordinances,” he said. “We will review the possible alternative enforcement method you have referenced and after review appropriate recommendations will be made as necessary to appropriate city officials. We will have no further comment until our review is completed.”

Mayor David Maher could propose that the City Council take the matter up officially, but Lee Gianetti, his chief of staff, said Maher wouldn’t make a decision until Inspectional Services drafted legislation. “The concept looks interesting for our perspective,” Gianetti said. “Once they have something concrete, we’ll comment on it.”

Under state law, inspectors must visit each food establishments once every six months for routine inspection, then return for re-inspections a few days to one week later until all violations are resolved. It is left to individual cities and towns to decide whether to issue fines or suspensions for restaurants that fail to maintain clean and sanitary conditions.

Ignoring repeat complaints

“Normally a good thing to do with them is to just sit them down for a hearing, bring in all the key players and have everybody sit down and talk about it, talk about why things are not getting taken care of when you’ve asked for them to be taken care of,” Fernandes said. “Usually that scares them enough.”

Still, some restaurants, even the best-regarded, can ignore inspectors’ repeat complaints, according to a review of three years of inspection documents for several upscale restaurants obtained by Cambridge Day. Three years ago, inspector Bernard “Buddy” Packer found no screen door between the dish room and trash bin area at Harvest, a renowned upscale restaurant on Brattle Street. With no screen door, insects and other unwelcome critters could saunter into the kitchen. A door had to be installed to keep the restaurant up to code, Packer wrote in his report.

Packer came back for a re-inspection, then another. There was still no screen door in the dish room, according to inspection reports. The restaurant’s management said there was a door on order Oct. 2, 2008, and the restaurant passed inspection — but on the next inspection, April 28, 2009, there was again no screen door to be found. General Manager Peter Baker declined to comment and referred Cambridge Day to Paul Dias, senior vice president of operations at American Food Management, which owns several well-regarded restaurants in Boston and Cambridge. Dias did not return multiple calls for comment.

Over the past three years, inspectors also cited Harvest for four instances of missing refrigerator thermometers and four accounts of allowing cooks and food handlers to wear jewelry or watches — violations of the Food Code that, while not severe enough to shut down the restaurant, can still put patrons at risk of food-borne illness.

Wielding a ticket book

That’s why Fernandes and other inspectors would like the power to fine repeat offenders. Inspectors in Belmont, Newton, Watertown, and Brookline all have the power to impose fines and do so regularly.

The fines won’t solve any budget woes: They typically bring only about $1,000 to $2,000 a year into towns’ general funds. Still, when an inspector comes in wielding a ticket book, restaurant managers tend to pay more attention, said Patrick Maloney, Brookline’s assistant director of public health. Maloney said his inspectors can fine offenders $50 per violation per visit. They only use that power, however, for chronic code violators.

“What it’s useful for are stubborn issues, like food that’s left at the counter unprotected, keeping doors open that would allow flies and pests to come in to the establishment, or any other thing that the inspector would feel they’ve cited a restaurant for multiple times,” Maloney said.

Bad repeat offenders can also get permit surcharges, where the cost of their permit goes up the more they offend. Brookline inspectors can levy these surcharges when they’ve received valid food illness complaints. Belmont uses the same method.

“It’s like driving infractions. Let’s say you’re in a lot of accidents, your insurance costs go up,” Maloney said. “If you’re not keeping your establishment clean, we’re burning more energy on you … so your permit will cost more.”

View the restaurant inspection reports for Upstairs on the Square and Harvest.

This story was produced through the Watchdog New England-Cambridge Day partnership. View the original story on Cambridge Day’s website.

City plans crackdown on ‘problem properties’; owners facing fines

47-49 Savin Hill Ave: Six-family house has been source of concern in Savin Hill. (Photo Credit: Dorchester Reporter)

By Stephen Kurkjian and Rachel Zarrell

When 19-year-old Derek Matulina was shot to death at the Savin Hill MBTA station on May 7, his father instinctively knew the house where the alleged killer, Nhu Ahn Nguyencq, was initially reported to have fled after the shooting.

Having lived in Savin Hill for over a decade, Robert Matulina, now 61, remembered the house as an eyesore even before he left the neighborhood 10 years ago. While police now doubt the initial media accounts that the house had been a hiding place for the alleged killer and, possibly, witnesses to the crime, it was not surprising that those familiar with the neighborhood would find such reports credible.

The three-decker at 47-49 Savin Hill Ave. has long been in physical decline, and community and City Hall tolerance to that decline had allowed the six-family house to become a hang-out for neighborhood toughs, if not a breeding ground for crime.

If it could happen at such a highly-visible address on Savin Hill’s main road, then the entire neighborhood was vulnerable. That was the message that Robert Matulina as well as Derek’s sister, Leah Murphy Bailly, underscored at a neighborhood meeting that they attended just a few days after Derek’s murder. The meeting— held at the Cristo Rey school building — drew an estimated 300 people, including several of Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s closest advisers. And spurred by that meeting’s message, the city has established an initiative to strike at the nagging problem of neighborhood crime by focusing on the properties that generate the most police 911 calls.

In the coming days, the administration intends to begin directing owners of properties that have been responsible for eight or more police calls in the past year to take steps toward solving the problems by warning or evicting the troublemakers. If they fail to take action, the owners will face fines themselves.

At the outset, the landlords will be contacted by the city and told of the high number of crimes that have taken place at the residences. The landlords will be told that if they don’t participate in an action plan to address the problem immediately, the city will begin to assess fines against them under a new municipal ordinance that Menino submitted to the Boston City Council.

Although many details of the effort are still be worked out – it likely will take statutory changes to make the job of evicting problem tenants easier – the initiative of forcing landlords to get more involved in policing their tenants’ behavior is a good one, city officials said.

“The mayor was very focused on this right from the start, from the weekend that the shooting took place,” said Michael Kineavy, Menino’s chief of policy and planning who is overseeing a multi-agency task force aimed at addressing the problem. “He impressed on us on the need for doing things differently. Let the police do their work there first, but once they’re done, let’s focus on what the other agencies can do with the police department to stop future problems from occurring” at the properties.

This is not the first time that City Hall has sought to crack down on properties that had become crime centers in Boston. For ten years, beginning under Mayor Raymond Flynn and continuing through Menino’s administration, the city worked with federal law enforcement and housing authorities to crack down on residences that had been turned into drug dens. About 250 such properties were seized and turned into affordable housing sites under the program, but the effort ended about 10 years ago when the federal funds dried up.

But the killing in Savin Hill moved Menino to call on his inner circle to come up with a new program. An initial review of the database on Boston Police Department 911 calls shows there is no shortage of problem properties – and property owners – to concentrate on. In Dorchester and Mattapan alone, about a dozen single or multiple-family residences were found to have generated more than ten police calls, many of them involving serious crime such as gun violence, drug dealing, and assault and battery, in the last year ending May 25.

Bringing the weight of City Hall on landlords to pay more attention to attacking the problem of crime at their properties may be the right approach. Several landlords contacted in recent days by the Dorchester Reporter said they intended to address the problem immediately, while others said they had already begun eviction proceedings against unruly tenants.

Margarita Ortiz, who owns a three-decker on Draper Street in Dorchester, was contacted by the city concerning the multiple number of times that police had been summoned there. Agreeing that the property was “run-down,” she blamed the calls on a person who often visits one of her tenants. The city official “told me about what I have to do with the problems,” Ortiz said.

James Hatfield, who owns an apartment building on Pearl Street in Dorchester, said that when the city contacted him about the high number of incidents at his property, he was already in the process of trying to remove his problem tenant.

“They contacted me about a month ago, told me there were some problems over there,” Hatfield said. “I told them at the time I basically had resolved [them]; there were a couple of problem tenants in the building and basically I had already gotten them out by the time police had called me.”

Still, the ambitious goal of forcing landlords to join the front-line in the effort to reduce crime faces legal impediments. Problem tenants, even those who have been arrested for crimes, have rights in Massachusetts housing courts that make evicting them a long, arduous process.

Richard J. Henken, president of Schochet Associates, which owns or manages about 30 apartment buildings in New England, a third of them located in Boston, said the city’s initiative to assess fines on those landlords whose properties are responsible for multiple police calls should involve a balanced approach.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily fair that all of the responsibility be brought to bear directly on the landlord, especially where there are situations where the landlord is making good faith efforts to deal with the troubled residents, the problem residents,” Henken said. “To the extent that the landlord can claim that he or she has been working in good faith to ameliorate the problem, either through eviction proceedings or through resistance to cease and desist from the behavior that’s causing the problems.”

At the same time, Henken said, the city is justified in assessing fines against absentee landlords who are not responding responsibly to crime that may be occurring at their properties. “In a situation where a landlord is not paying attention to this stuff, or a landlord has not taken action to keep their property in good shape, or they haven’t taken action to make sure folks are abiding by the rules and the laws – clearly for those folks, there’s no excuse.”

“But …,” Henken added, “for the vast majority of the landlords that I think you could potentially talk to, we all understand that it’s in our best interest as landlords to not have eight police calls, to not have a small number of residents who are ruining the living environment for the rest of the residents. We want the same thing the city does, it’s just a question of how you do it.”

While the Problem Property Task Force is intent on targeting those properties that have been responsible for multiple police calls, left unaddressed are the numerous others – often in the same neighborhood – that, while in rundown conditions or even abandoned, have not yet become crime centers.

Take 14 Ditson St. in the Fields Corner neighborhood. The three-decker has not prompted any police calls, but it has been boarded up since being hit by a fire several years ago. Neighborhood residents were so concerned with its blighted condition that they called a neighborhood meeting that was attended by Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley.

While he sympathized with residents’ concerns, Conley reminded those assembled at a neighborhood meeting in late April that the city could only act to take control of the property if it were deemed a public health menace or if the owners failed to pay their property taxes.

Barry Mullen-Barry, a long-time Dorchester affordable housing advocate, expressed frustration that the Ditson Street address would not be covered by the Menino Administration’s initiative on problem properties. “It’s only a matter of time before squatters set in or it becomes a drug den, or even worse,” Mullen-Barry said. “Why can’t something be done before police need to be called?”

That sentiment was echoed by Robert Matulina, a retired electrician now living in Florida, whose son’s death led to the initiative. “I saw it so often during Derek’s life – kids with no jobs start hanging out at some property that’s been abandoned or become rundown,” he said. “And inevitably, before long, the kids start abusing the property, abusing the neighbors, abusing the entire neighborhood.”

Next: A closer look at some of Dorchester and Mattapan’s busiest addresses for police activity.

This story was produced through the Watchdog New England-Dorchester Reporter partnership. View the original story on Dorchester Reporter’s website.

Shorenstein Center Knight Fellow Spotlights Investigative Reporting at Northeastern

Partner up, says Sandy Rowe, Shorenstein Center Knight Fellow, it could be a sustainable model for local investigative reporting. In a recent discussion paper, “Partners of Necessity: The Case for Collaboration in Local Investigative Reporting,” Rowe expounds her theory that collaborations between newsrooms, universities and foundations “could be the overlooked key for investigative journalism to thrive at the local and state levels.” Among the many programs that she discusses is the partnership between Walter V. Robinson’s investigative reporting seminar and The Boston Globe. Together, they have produced  19 Page-One stories for the Globe.

Robinson sees what he is doing today as a potential model. “Our modest start at Northeastern can be replicated by any adventurous journalism program. Journalism teachers need not limit themselves to wringing their hands at the plight of the news business. Nor should students need to wait for newsroom internships or graduation to do reporting that gets published in a metro newspaper — reporting that makes a difference. And savvy newspaper editors ought to welcome the help.”

You can read Rowe’s full paper here.

Walter Robinson to be Honored at Common Cause Event

Common Cause of Massachusetts will honor Walter V. Robinson, the director of Watchdog New England, for his dedication to producing journalism in the public interest at its annual brunch on June 18. Robinson will receive the John Gardner Public Service Award for his lifetime achievement in practicing and advancing investigative journalism.

Common Cause is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates for an open and accountable government. For more details on the event, click here.