Mayor Martin J. Walsh, WCAS ’09, will send officials from Boston’s Office of Neighborhood Services (ONS) to begin surveying the city’s 850 miles of city streets in an effort to assess each neighborhood in detail on Monday. Everything that they find will be catalogued in a “story map,” and shared with the public as part of Walsh’s emphasis on increased transparency and accountability in the government.
This citywide audit that Walsh calls NEW Boston—NEW stands for Neighborhood Engagement Walks–will be a cross-departmental venture. The ONS representatives will work in conjunction with branches such as the Inspectional Services Department, the Public Works Department, the Transportation Department, and the Parks Department, among others.
In a Sept. 5 press release, Walsh said that the representatives will be “evaluating infrastructure challenges, identifying constituent concerns through conversations, and cataloging issues facing each neighborhood.”
While ONS already has representatives for each neighborhood of Boston, Walsh admits that there is room for improvement. By going through each neighborhood with a fine-tooth comb, Walsh hopes that the representatives of ONS will not only catalogue every detail associated with the neighborhoods, but also build a face-to-face relationship with their constituents.
“Our ONS reps are outstanding,” said Walsh, according to the press release. “But I want them to know every inch of the area that they represent, and the best way to do that is to get on the ground and in the weeds. By combining technology and grassroots engagement, we can—for the first time in our history—truly assess every piece of this city to better serve the people in our neighborhoods.”
Walsh’s launch of NEW Boston comes in the wake of the discovery of numerous housing and safety violations primarily in neighborhoods dominated by off-campus housing for college students.
Following a fire at 87 Linden Street that killed 22-year-old Boston University student Binland Lee in 2013, The Boston Globe published a series in May that revealed rampant overcrowding and countless safety violations in student off-campus housing. The series prompted Walsh to meet with local college officials to request that they release the addresses of students living on campus, a request that turned into a requirement after a vote by the Boston City Council. The address database is part of an effort to crack down on landlords who allow more than four full-time undergraduates to live in the same unit of housing, a violation of city code.
Landlords often cram 10 or more residents into the same house so that students can work together to afford rent. In the process, however, the landlords often end up creating illegal bedrooms in the basement or the attic that are in direct violation of fire safety codes.
While the City of Boston requires landlords to submit houses to inspections every time they have new tenants, The Boston Globe series reported that only a fraction of houses are checked and, even then, the records are so archaic that there is no effective way for the city to track repeat offenders. Last year, city officials checked only 2,304 housing inspections out of a total of 154,000 rentals, or one in every 67 houses. Even in all the units inspected, the Globe could not find one overcrowding citation issued by the city.
Overcrowding is not the only issue facing Boston residents. Drastic health violations are also present, with many landlords neglecting to respond to mold, insect, and even rodent complaints. Residents in many of these student-dominated neighborhoods are subject to landlords who turn enormous profits while paying little to no attention to resident complaints. The Boston Globe found that the student-filled neighborhoods of Allston, Brighton, Mission Hill, and Fenway have over 50 percent more complaints than the city-wide average, totaling over 14,000 to the Inspectional Services Department in the past eight years.
NEW Boston is Walsh’s effort to curb the health and safety violations that have run rampant in recent years. The entire audit is expected to conclude by the end of 2014, but issues reported by residents will be addressed in real time using applications such as Citizens Connect and City Worker, part of Walsh’s desire to upgrade the city’s infrastructure through technology while also increasing transparency.
“Mayor Walsh has challenged each department to take a fresh look at the work that we do, and the best way to begin is to conduct a comprehensive evaluation,” said Jerome Smith, director of ONS, according to a press release. “We always want to take a long view and find ways to better serve our constituents. By combing the city’s streets and logging everything we find, we’re fulfilling the mayor’s promise to increase efficiency while supporting greater transparency.”
Featured Image by Emily Fahey / Heights Editor