Mayor Menino declares war on owners of dangerous properties in wake of blaze

Crackdown targets 'life or death' safety hazards

September 21, 2010

City inspectors are embarking tomorrow on a daunting, unprecedented crackdown on owners of vacant and unsafe buildings as officials sound new alarms about the dangers in nearly 150 problem properties.

The team from the fire, inspectional services and other departments will start in East Boston and make their way through the city, going into all 147 empty or abandoned properties deemed dangerous by the fire department.

"The goal is to put the pressure on these owners of these properties to restore them to a safe and sanitary condition," Mayor Thomas M. Menino told the Herald on Friday. "If they do not move as quickly as we'd like, we'll bring them to court and make sure they restore those to the proper condition."

The mayor created the task force in the wake of an Aug. 21 Roxbury warehouse fire, one of the biggest in city history. The building's landlord has admitted renting out illegal apartments in the building next door, as well as allowing an illegal auto-body shop.

A crackdown on such buildings "really hasn't happened before in Boston," said Steve MacDonald, Boston Fire Department spokesman and a longtime firefighter. "You are going to have a comprehensive look at some really bad properties. We are going to be able to document it and track down the owners and hold them accountable."

Some buildings on the list - for example, a three-story house at 17 Savin St. in Roxbury - are so ramshackle that jakes are banned by the fire department from even entering. The house was bought on Friday for $103,000 by Clayton A. Weston of Boston, who plans to fix it up, according to a family member. Weston did not return a call.

"If they go into these buildings," Fire Commissioner Roderick J. Fraser said of the hazardous structures marked with a red and white X, "it could be a life or death risk."

Neighbors say the abandoned buildings often are a magnet for the homeless. One building, at 307 C St. in South Boston, has been set on fire in recent years and is "very, very scary," said Donna Keough, 41, who lives across from the weed-strewn lot. MCL Companies in Chicago bought it in 2007 to build condos. The company, which according to the city owes $65,981 in back taxes, did not return a call requesting comment.

Out-of-town landlords own some of the buildings on the fire department's hazardous property list, and others can't be located by the city.

Some owners of properties on the list have promised to rehab their troubled buildings.

For example, in a highly touted 2008 deal, the Church of Scientology of Boston bought a rundown property at Massachusetts Avenue and Washington Street. Now, 33 months later, it still has weakened stairs, weak walls and debris. The church is seeking approval from the Landmarks Commission to renovate. When asked if he was concerned about the dangers inside, Kevin Hall, the church's human rights director, said: "Of course - that's why we are going to renovate it and make it better."

Buildings that are not undergoing renovation will be targeted in the crackdown, which is high-priority, according to public safety officials.

"They are going to go at it aggressively," MacDonald said. "The mayor has charged them with doing it as quickly as possible and also doing a thorough job."

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