Boston Tenants Are Drowning in Problems With Landlords

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The walls of Mei-Ling Smith’s studio apartment in Boston’s Back Bay are covered with maxi pads and adult diapers. Smith’s apartment wasn’t vandalized. Instead, she’s trying to use what she calls her “MacGyver skills’’ to catch water that’s been leaking from the roof of her apartment for more than three weeks.

This year, the city has received a record number of complaints from renters like Smith, whose landlord hasn’t made the necessary repairs due to water damage from the melting snow. Frustrated with the lack of response from her landlord after two weeks, Smith eventually contacted Boston’s Inspection Services Department to file a complaint.

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Steven Tankle, Director of Code Enforcement for the Public Works Department, told Boston.com that the city has received anywhere from 2,500 to 3,000 more complaints than normal in the past three weeks.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my 17 and a half years working for the city,’’ Tankle said. “I don’t want to age myself, but I’ve never seen anything like this since the blizzard of ‘78, and I’m no spring chicken.’’

A Record Number of Complaints

During the past few weeks, Tankle said the city has received as many as 200 more complaints per day than the usual 300-400, which he says is physically impossible to keep up with.

From the number of complaints filed, it appears to him that landlords are also having a difficult time keeping up, though their difficulty is what’s causing problems for both renters and city officials.

Landlords have three hours after a storm finishes to clear sidewalks and make their residences otherwise habitable. If a storm finishes in the middle of the night, the city doesn’t start inspecting complaints until about 10 a.m., in order to give the landlords time to venture out into the elements and begin the necessary work.

A man begins to plow out his driveway on February 15 in Brant Rock.
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Most landlords understand that it’s their duty to resolve problems quickly, especially if they live near the property they manage and can view problems firsthand. However, Tankle says Boston has a large number of “absentee landlords’’ who don’t live on or near the properties they manage. The city has seen many complaints because of these types of landlords, some of whom live outside the United States. Smith’s landlord is one of them.

Absentee Landlords Contribute to Problem

On February 4, Smith came back from dinner with friends to find water damage near a window due to her ceiling leaking. She lost a lampshade and laid out tarps and towels to catch the leak.

She emailed her landlady, who lives in China, to tell her about the problem, but received no response. She also copied her landlord on emails to the apartment’s management company, who told her the building was on a waiting list for the ice dams to be cleared. Smith was also in contact with a local associate who works with her landlord, yet the leak still went unrepaired.

“We’re trying to get the snow off the roof, but there’s nowhere to put it,’’ Bill Kasper, President of Urban Property Management Corporation, which manages Smith’s building, told Boston.com. “You can’t put it in spaces that people just shoveled out or in front yards, because they’re too small. Realistically, the cost benefit isn’t there to spend tens of thousands of dollars to clear snow off the roof, when it’s going to melt in a few weeks. We’re trying to be proactive, but a lot of it is just a wait-and-see situation.’’

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As the snow melted in Smith’s apartment, the leak morphed into a steady stream that fills multiple buckets. Water and black debris pours from the crown moldings, and the inside of Smith’s apartment sounds like the inside of an African rainstick, with brown-water raindrops thumping so loudly and percussively in the buckets that she has a difficult time sleeping.

When buckets weren’t enough to contain the waterflow, Smith started using maxipads and adult diapers, as well as plastic tarps. Her electronics are protected with a shower curtain, and many of her belongings are in plastic bags. She says her liveable space is now limited to a galley kitchen and her bed, which she covers with a tarp every time she leaves the house.

A photo of Mei-Ling Smith’s apartment taken Monday, Feb. 23. —Photo courtesy of Mei-Ling Smith.

The leaking has also taken a physical toll on Smith. Her eyes have also turned swollen and itchy because of mold she suspects might be growing due to damp surfaces, or toxins that may be seeping in with the raindrops.

Yet she’s still living in the apartment. Smith chose not to stay in a hotel because she would rather be in the apartment to shield her belongings from water damage in case of mass amounts of flooding.

“People are really quick to tell you ‘just move,’ or ‘just don’t pay rent until the problem’s fixed,’’’ she said. “But it’s different when it’s your own apartment. And I’ve entered into a legal contract with someone. I want to do this the right way. I don’t want there to be all of this hassle.’’

On February 22, more than two weeks after the leaking began, Smith texted her landlord’s assistant, then emailed her landlord, to mention breaking the lease because the living conditions are unsafe. It was after this message that her landlord finally responded via email and copied a management company to urge them to make the repairs soon. Smith also contacted the city, who she said was responsive and professional when making arrangements to come see her apartment Thursday. After surveying the apartment, they sent a violation notice to Smith’s landlord and her associate.

A Wide Range of Complaints

Complaints like Smith’s, which pertain to water damage, aren’t the only type the city is receiving. Katia, who lives near Fenway and asked that her last name not be used because she is still negotiating with her landlord, contacted the city because her landlord hasn’t shoveled the back entrance to her apartment, often leaving two-foot piles for days at a time.

Simone Chuda worked to remove snow from the sidewalks in front of her home on Sunday afternoon, February 15, 2015. Photo by Dina Rudick/Globe Staff.

Each time it snows, she’s had to contact her landlord to ask him to shovel, which he doesn’t do until days later. She contacted the city to formally complain, but because she needs to leave the house, she ends up shoveling herself and getting rid of any “evidence’’ of negligence.

Other residents have contacted the city because of unplowed parking lots, piled-up trash, and loss of heat, Tankle told Boston.com. He said many of the complaints come from residents with absentee landlords. “We do take into consideration the amount of time it’s been since the storm, but if there’s no attempt made, we’re happy to write a violation,’’ he said.

What You Can Do

If you’re having a problem and have contacted your landlord, the best course of action is to call the city at 617-635-5300 or email ISDhousing@cityofboston.gov to arrange for inspectors to come survey the property. Tankle said inspectors usually come in 24-48 hours, but now response times are closer to 2-3 days. “Nobody’s moving, nobody’s sitting down,’’ Tankle told Boston.com. “We’re doing the best we can.’’

A push from the city and a formal violation is often enough to push landlords to either solve the problem or book a management service to come and take care of the issue, such as clearing ice dams. If not, residents can contact a lawyer for legal advice, and might decide to withhold rent, which is within a tenant’s rights if the landlord has failed to make the residence habitable. Smith might consider doing this after she consults a lawyer.

“We’ve all had a terrible winter, and some degree of burden of inconvenience can be shared,’’ she said. “But at some point, I am paying a landlord a high price for an apartment of which I have had not only a lack of full use and enjoyment, but one that’s causing expenses, potential health hazards, exposure to soot, debris, possibly mold, severe sleep deprivation because of noise, rashes, and eye swelling. I just want some type of discount to make it fair.’’

She’s also going to start looking for other places to live. In the meantime, Smith knows she’s in a better situation than many people, dirty diapers and all. “I have a roof over my head,’’ she said. “It’s leaking, but I still have a place to sleep at night. A lot of people don’t have that.’’

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