Officials target illegal apartments
Rental units pose health, fire risks
Safety officials in Quincy and Brockton have lived up to a 2009 vow to crack down on illegal apartments following a fire that year that killed a West Quincy man and his two young sons in their basement dwelling.
Not long after the deadly blaze, Quincy’s Illegal Rooming House Task Force, made up of fire, police, building, and health officials, exposed 150 illegal apartments. Since then, members have identified another 375 dwellings that have been built into residences without the proper permits, said Jay Duca, the city’s director of inspectional services.
“We have 30 cases still in court and another 20 pending,’’ he said.
A similar squad in Brockton found 120 such dwellings in 2009 and 40 since then, said James Casieri, the city’s superintendent of buildings, suggesting that the lower number is an indication that the city’s zero-tolerance stance is being taken seriously by landlords.
At the same time, Brockton has established a registry to list vacant and abandoned buildings, which Casieri estimated at between 500 and 1,000 structures. Under the new plan, owners must pay an annual fee, starting at $150, based on how long the buildings have gone unused.
The policy is a safeguard that identifies potential problems and ensures people cannot move into the buildings or break in and steal copper piping and other valuable materials, Casieri said: “The more tools we have, the better off we are.’’
By contrast, Quincy has about 30 vacant buildings, Duca said. “We’re in pretty good shape. They are identified and secured.’’
State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan and Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey, whose office handled the Quincy case, have proposed a law that elevates the crime of creating an illegal apartment to the state level, requiring jail time.
If passed, it would be the first such major change since the Legislature raised culpability for fire and building code violations that cause serious injury or death following the 2003 Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island, Morrissey said.
Illegal apartments, which often pose health, fire, and safety risks to tenants, are not so prevalent in rural areas that have smaller housing stocks, he said. They are more likely to be found closer to Boston, in communities such as Braintree, Dedham, Milton, and Weymouth, he said.
But preventing property owners from creating illegal apartments is a challenge without an appropriately strong statute, Morrissey said. In a drunken-driving case, for example, a prosecutor has identifiable acts and elements of law to meet. Trying to wade through municipal ordinances and building code violations to prove cases of illegal dwellings can be arduous.
“If it becomes a crime for someone to put in an illegal apartment, it would be easier for lawyers and others to sink their teeth into,’’ he said. “If you have a two-family, it’s a two-family. And if you do everything legally, you have nothing to worry about.’’
Coan recalled responding to the March 25, 2009, Quincy blaze that took the lives of Oudah Frawi and his sons, Ali and Hassan.
The three were trapped in a basement apartment at 100 Robertson St. that had no working smoke alarms, just one door, and windows that were too small to squeeze through. Frawi’s wife, Terri Knight, survived the fire with serious injuries.
“It was an egregious tragedy,’’ Coan said, praising the successful prosecution of Andy and Jason Huang, the Quincy brothers who owned the house. They were given three-year prison sentences.
“It also sends a strong message to landlords that if they are going to profit from ownership they have an obligation to provide safe habitation,’’ he said. “Anything other than that will not be tolerated.’’
Illegal residences are often marked by only one entrance. Hastily constructed basement spaces with concrete walls and floors can be covered in mold, and place residents at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning from living and sleeping so near a boiler, officials said. Residents often use electric space heaters, which increase the fire risk, officials said. City task forces are often clued in to the apartments’ existence by jury-rigged electric and water meters on the outside of the homes, as well as the number of satellite dishes positioned on the roof.
Duca said it is frustrating having no uniform statute that all cities and town can rely on to prosecute such cases, which end up dragging through the court system. Fines, once invoked, aren’t stiff enough to be a deterrent, he said.
He said he would like to see landlords charged as much as $5,000 after an illegal dwelling is discovered followed by a lien on the property until the fine is collected.
“Maybe that’s over the top, but it will get their attention,’’ he said.
A harsh economy is at the root of the problem for many landlords and tenants, Duca and Casieri agreed. Housing is expensive, and people are trying every way they can to make ends meet.
“We are in the safety business,’’ Duca said. “We have to rely on people reporting them because the people who live there won’t.’’
Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.