There is definitely no love lost right now between the Wu administration and many of Boston’s landlords.
Mayor Michelle Wu clearly has her sights set on putting some sort of cap on rent increases, which has raised the hackles of already stressed-out mom and pop landlords for whom the words “rent control” might as well be a profanity.
Now Wu’s administration is ramping up apartment inspections after a big drop during the pandemic.
Rental inspections have jumped 28 percent this year through September compared to the same period the year before, according to statistics from Boston’s Inspectional Services Department.
All of which is not going over well among owners of modest rental properties that belong to the always-vocal Small Property Owners Association.
Landlords Feel Targeted
Allison Drescher, president of SPOA, says her landlords feel targeted by the new mayoral administration.
Boston’s new mayor earlier this year launched a “rent stabilization” panel to take public input and help craft a potential rent control plan.
That 23-member panel consisted mainly of housing advocates and community organizers, with a handful of members with development or private sector real estate experience thrown in for good measure.
Left off the invitation list were SPOA, MassLandlords and the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, both of which have been vocally against rent control in any form.
The panel’s public hearings haven’t done much to improve matters, either, given the high level of distrust right now between at least some segment of landlords and City Hall. Attendees were asked to keep their comments to how the city should implement rent restrictions, not whether it was a good idea in the first place.
Enter ISD, which has chosen this particularly fraught moment to ramp up apartment inspections.
Drescher said her members don’t have an issue with inspections, with SPOA urging members to comply, noting the aim of the process is to provide safe housing.
But the decision to push ahead with a big boost in the number of inspections is another matter, especially as it comes at a time when many small landlords are struggling.
Some are grappling with tenants who can’t or won’t pay and who owe tens of thousands in back rents. On top of that, there is the impact of inflation, which is driving up the cost of everything, including fuel costs and electric bills.
Inspections Needed Every Five Years
Overall, the current system of inspections, which costs landlords at least $50 a unit, has long been criticized by real estate groups as a mainly a way for city officials to raise revenue.
“We do however find it very distressing that Mayor Wu continues to target property owners, who provide 60 percent of housing in Boston,” Drescher said. “Now she’s raising more revenue off our backs, while simultaneously attempting to shut us out of the public process on her rent control initiatives.”
However, Lisa Timberlake, the ISD spokesperson, countered that such accusations are “not accurate.”
Rather, the increase in inspections is aimed at meeting the rental regulatory requirements that every rental unit in the city be inspected every five years, she said.
Another driver is the drop in on-site inspections that happened during the pandemic’s height. The current increase comes after two years in which a number of inspections were done virtually or were deferred entirely.
The increase is a “response to the reduced number of inspections that took place in 2020 and 2021,” Timberlake said. “For a number of COVID-related reasons which impacted the department’s ability to conduct proactive housing inspections, fewer inspections were scheduled and completed.”
9,186 Inspections So Far
Meanwhile, the inspection blitz is just starting to get off the ground.
So far this year, City Hall’s apartment watchdog has checked out 9,186 rental units.
And even more are on the way, with ISD accelerating the pace of inspections by more than half compared to the first half of the year.
In fact, some inspectors who handle incoming complaints from tenants are being shifted onto the new effort as well, said Paul Williams, the city’s assistant housing commissioner.
An increase in inspections was bound to come. And even with the ramp-up over at ISD, it’s not clear that the number of apartments checked out by inspectors will equal or surpass 2019 levels.
But as for the timing of the inspection push? Or for that matter, how the rent control panel was rolled out, including the decision to exclude critics? Let’s just say it could all have been handled better.
Scott Van Voorhis is Banker & Tradesman’s columnist; opinions expressed are his own. He may be reached at email@example.com.